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Ed Vaizey wants to let ISPs charge for Internet 'fast lane'

The government wants to hand ISPs the power to restrict web traffic and favour websites that pay them more.

The government wants to hand ISPs the power to restrict web traffic and favour websites that pay them more. In a speech today, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey suggested ditching net neutrality -- the principal that all web traffic and content should be treated equally -- potentially creating a fast lane and a slow lane in your Intertubes.

Vaizey wants to allow Internet service providers to "innovate and experiment with new ways of delivering what consumers want, so we can ensure continued investment in the infrastructure that delivers the content and applications we all use". In other words, hand ISPs a license to print money in return for them footing the bill for the planned infrastructure upgrade to the nation's data network.

The government may also want to throw the ISPs a bone to defuse opposition to the Digital Economy Act. Talk Talk and BT have won a judicial review of the rushed and half-formed plans to monitor and block illegal file-sharing.

Life in the fast lane

As consumers, the amount we pay for our Internet is already tiered, based on speed. Vaizey's plan would create a similar system for content providers. That could be a serious expense for services that eat up bandwidth, like LoveFilm's streamed video or Spotify's streamed music. We wonder if start-ups like Spotify would even have got off the ground under such a system -- and it would have serious implications for planned 'online Freeview' service YouView.

It's also a worrying idea for the BBC. Online viewing service iPlayer chews through bandwidth like Pacman with a tapeworm. ISPs have long argued that services like iPlayer are wrecking the Internet. Under the proposed system, they would have a way of reclaiming the costs from the content creator. In the case of iPlayer, that means eating into the BBC's budget earned from our license fees. Other content creators will pass the cost on to us. Meanwhile, sites that don't cough up are throttled to prioritise those that do.

Will it work?

Vaizey reckons that Britain has enough ISPs to ensure competition between them will prevent abuse of the system. A requirement of the law would be that ISPs are upfront with consumers about how they manage traffic. While we don't begrudge ISPs the opportunity to make money, we don't want to see net neutrality left by the wayside as a result. Fortunately, a new EU law coming our way on the subject of net neutrality will at least guarantee transparency.

What do you think? Should the government work to protect net neutrality, or should ISPs get to favour those who can pay for the privilege?