A comment by Virgin Media’s new boss that net neutrality is “bollocks” could have repercussions for the company. Let’s hope so.
Virgin’s CEO Neil Berkett is far from unusual, aside from the stupidity he displayed in being so blunt about his attitude to the Net. Businessmen do not view the Internet as a public good: to them, it is simply a way of making money. And they will seize every opportunity they find for exploiting the Net, and their customers. That’s business.
The suggestion, by Berkett, that Virgin will charge major content suppliers for faster access to its customers means that the company gets two bites at the cherry. It would be charging customers for access to the Internet, and then charging suppliers on the Internet for access to customers. It is like a car dealership charging GM or Ford for selling its cars to members of the public.
It is also a form of extortion. What Virgin (and other companies considering this approach) are saying is, “cough up or no-one will get to see your site”.
No doubt Virgin will argue that it isn’t banning sites or preventing its subscribers from reaching them. But these are typical corporate weasel words. The fact is, if some sites are so slow to load that people give up, then that is de facto censorship. It is censorship not for political or moral motives, but for pure commercial gain.
This puts Virgin in the position of deciding what you get to see. That’s bad enough. Worse, not even Virgin will decide this: the selection will be made by market forces. And experience shows that this will lead to the prioritising of the crass, the populist, the lowest common denominator. In terms of quality, the Internet will go the same way as TV. Down.
Infomatics quoted Cory Doctorow, internet activist and journalist as saying:
“As a Virgin customer, I am not paying to see those services that bribe Virgin to reach me. I am paying to reach the entire web, whichever bits I think are useful, as quickly as Virgin can deliver them.”
Doctorow says any move in this direction would be a breach of his contract with Virgin, leaving him free to ditch the company as his ISP and look elsewhere. Hopefully, others will join him.
The storm brewed up by activists like Stop Virgin is already having an effect. Virgin has issued statements trying to water down Berkett’s words without actually changing the company’s position – in other words, they’ve been indulging in the usual corporate PR bullshit in an attempt to avoid bad publicity while carrying on with their original plan.
ISPs are a kind of choke point between the general public and the Net. That’s why governments target them when they want to impose filters or implement spying programmes. Maybe it’s time for an official investigation into the power of ISPs to control what we see and what we can do on the Internet. They are in a privileged position. It’s time we had ways of preventing abuses of that privilege.
In the meantime, maybe Virgin Media should consider whether Berkett really is suited to this job.