The government has indicated that it would broadly support the creation of a ‘two tier Internet’, allowing Internet service providers (ISPs) to prioritise the delivery of content to those who pay more.
Speaking at a conference in London this week, Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said it was "crucial" to the development of the Internet that ISPs are able to "innovate and experiment with new ways of delivering what consumers want".
Vaizey’s comments have been perceived as a blow to net neutrality, a concept used to describe the Internet’s current state in which all kinds of content are handled equally.
However, the communications minister said that allowing content providers and consumers to pay for ‘premium’ content delivery services from ISPs would make for a more competitive online ecosystem.
"We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want," he explained. "This could include the evolution of a two sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service."
Debates over net neutrality have been more pronounced in other parts of the world. In the US, search engine provider Google and telco Verizon recently reached an agreement to preserve net neutrality for fixed line connections, but not mobile Internet.
Vaizey says no such distinction will be made in the UK, saying it is "unlikely to hold much importance in a converged environment and is unlikely to prove viable over the long-term".
He added that complete transparency was needed in the creation of any form of two-tier Internet, so that users and content providers were aware of precisely what level of service they were receiving at any given time.
Vaizey’s comments have drawn criticism. Erik Huggers, director of future media and technology at the BBC, said afterwards that "an open and neutral Internet is crucial to the growth of our digital economy". The broadcaster is currently developing a system for iPlayer, its video streaming service, that gives users a green, red, and amber light denoting when traffic is being throttled by their ISP.
Digital rights lobbyist the Open Rights Group also criticised the Vaizey’s stance. Campaign director Jim Killock warned that it would "reduce innovation and reduce people’s ability to exercise their freedom of speech".