Digital Top Stories

Peter Gabriel speaks up for net neutrality after Vaizey speech

By | Published on Friday 19 November 2010

Peter Gabriel is one of an increasing number of people to speak up for the principle of net neutrality following a speech by Tory boy communications minister Ed Vaizey earlier this week in which he indicated he was inclined to allow internet service providers to alter the speed with which their customers can access different websites, so that some sites enjoy faster connections than others.

‘Net neutrality’ in a general sense is a catch all term that means neither governments nor telecommunication companies impose restrictions on the kinds of content, services, technologies and hardware that can be distributed on or connected to the internet. But in recent years it has often been principally used in connection to the debate about introducing a two or multi-tiered internet.

This would be a system whereby ISPs could connect to certain websites and online services faster, or give preference to certain sites when networks were busy. Most likely the sites that received preferential treatment would be those affiliated to the ISP, or those which paid a fee to the net company. Some net firms that support such a system argue they do so because it ensures a more efficient internet overall, but advocates of net neutrality, who oppose a tiered internet, reckon the main motivation for ISPs is that it would provide a new revenue stream.

Net neutrality fans rightly fear that any introduction of a tiered internet would benefit those web set-ups backed by cash rich corporations which would be able to offer faster and more sophisticated services because they can afford to pay ISPs to ensure web-users have high speed access to their websites. Smaller operators, by comparison, would have to accept that users would likely not enjoy high speed connections to their sites. This gives big business an unfair competitive advantage and, given the vast majority of innovation in internet technologies takes place in bedrooms and garages not corporate tower blocks, that would hinder the growth of the web overall.

Net neutrality has been much more debated in the US than over here in recent years, but concerns have been raised among the UK web community after the aforementioned Vaizey said in a speech at an FT conference on Wednesday that he didn’t have a problem with net providers introducing a tiered system for managing internet traffic.

Former Genesis man Peter Gabriel, who has backed a number of internet start-ups over the years, including OD2, We7 and The Filter, told The Guardian yesterday: “I feel very strongly about this. Freedom of access [to information online] is going to be an important battleground. It’s vital to a free and open democracy: [net neutrality] serves everybody”.

His viewpoint is shared by the CEO of The Filter, David Maher Roberts, who added: “From our point of view, net neutrality makes things accessible. That plays into the ubiquity of content, and that makes everything more relevant to me. If users only have access to what their ISP allows through, that’s not good from a business perspective. You’ve got to allow start-ups to deliver next-generation tools”.

Aside from the unfair advantage a tiered internet gives big companies over smaller ones, Gabriel also believes that once you start to erode one aspect of net neutrality other aspects are under threat too – ie governments or ISPs can further control what users can access online. He added: “The pace of technological change means there’s a battle for the internet. It used to be a free and open zone. Now there are governments around the world, especially in China, spending money trying to control this beast”.

Gabriel joins an increasing number of web, media and creative types expressing concerns about shifts in the net neutrality world. World wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is a big opponent to the tiered internet, as is the BBC’s top digital man Erik Huggers. And even many of the big media owners and web business chiefs oppose the system, even though it might ultimately benefit them, mainly because they don’t want to hand over more cash to the ISPs.

Barry Diller, outgoing Live Nation chairman and owner of web giant IAC, has accused the net firms of trying to set up a “tollbooth” on the internet, telling reporters: “It seems ridiculous to charge the toaster for the electrical grid, instead of the consumer. The ISPs want to charge both”.