Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, has been asked by ministers to work with broadband companies on guidelines to protect the “open internet”.
Internet service providers will be urged to agree provisions to strengthen consumer rights after this week pledging greater transparency on which sites and services they block and slow down.
Ed Vaizey, communications minister, said he wanted ISPs’ commitments to go further, after a meeting in central London on Wednesday of telecoms groups, media companies, consumer groups and Ofcom, the regulator. BT, TalkTalk, British Sky Broadcasting, Virgin Media, Google, Skype, Yahoo and Facebook attended.
“It is good to see that industry has taken the lead on agreeing greater transparency for their traffic management policies,” Mr Vaizey said of the Broadband Stakeholder Group’s best-practice code. “I am pleased that someone with the expertise of Sir Tim has agreed to work with industry on expanding that agreement to cover managing and maintaining the open internet.”
Broadband providers reacted with unease to Mr Vaizey’s proposal. “The challenge ahead is to build a common view on how we safeguard the benefits of the open internet whilst also ensuring ongoing investment and innovation,” said Antony Walker, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group.
In addition to ISPs’ commitment to transparent traffic management, users should be able to access “all legal content” and there should be “no discrimination against content-providers on the basis of commercial rivalry”, Mr Vaizey said.
“The internet has brought huge economic and social benefits across the world because of its openness, and that must continue.”
At issue is the principle of net neutrality: the belief, which Sir Tim ardently supports, that internet traffic should not be interfered with by telecoms groups.
“While transparency about traffic management policy is a good thing, best practices should also include the neutrality of the net,” Sir Tim said in a statement. “The web has grown so fast precisely because we have had two independent markets, one for connectivity, and the other for content and applications.”
The government wants the industry to agree a self-regulated system, rather than mandating net neutrality, as the US telecom regulator has sought to do.
But ISPs are struggling to cope with the volume of video and other rich media services.