David Prosser: The perils of paying for the internet

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Outlook For all the billions and trillions that the internet now generates, it remains a remarkably principled endeavour. At its heart lies the sacred rule of net neutrality, a geeky way of saying that all content is equal – that a web page will download to your computer at the same speed whether it was created by the largest company in the world or an anorak in his back bedroom.

Google's talks with Verizon, however, could put that principle at risk. If companies can pay in order to get their content to users more quickly, the internet will very quickly be dominated by big business. If, say, Google pays internet service providers to stream content such as YouTube more quickly than any other online video - a charge it vigorously denies- people will very quickly give up using other sites. This is an opportunity for the biggest content providers on the internet to hammer the little guys.

Still, it is all very well being high-minded about net neutrality, but there are some practical problems on the internet that this principle gets in the way of solving.

In Britain, for example, the Government is now committed to ensuring everyone has access to broadband internet by the end of the current Parliament. But it does not intend to pay for installing the network capacity necessary, even in areas where it is uneconomic for the private sector to invest in broadband upgrades.

Still, though they are being strong-armed into investing in their networks, the principle of net neutrality prevents internet service providers charging the people using those networks to distribute their content. So the BBC's iPlayer service, fantastic though it is, eats network capacity in this country, yet the corporation makes no contribution to the cost of upgrading the network to cope. When BT tried to suggest it should do so last year, it was told where to go in pretty short order.

These are difficult questions. Net neutrality is democratic and promotes competition, but it may compromise the development of the internet in the years to come. At the very least, it may mean consumers pay more – if internet service providers are prevented from making the distributors of content pay, you can expect them to turn to the receivers.

Google, for its part, says it remains committed to an "open internet". There is no reason to doubt that commitment, but one might argue that unless mechanisms are found to meet the costs of maintaining and improving online infrastructure, consumers may eventually find the internet closed for technical reasons.

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