ISPs shouldn't diddle with your data

Ofcom wants ISPs to come clean about traffic shaping

In an ideal world, ISPs wouldn't mess with our connections. Unfortunately it isn't an ideal world, and many ISPs do.

Two cheers, then, for Ofcom, which wants ISPs to be more open about what data they're diddling with. I'm withholding the third cheer until we've seen how the ISP industry reacts.

Ofcom is concerned about traffic management, which ISPs use to shape the ebb and flow of packets through their pipes.

ISPs argue that it's necessary, because data packets aren't all equal. If your email packets take a bit longer to come through, nobody dies; but if the packets for your video chat or live video stream get slowed down too much, you get an attack of the dreaded jaggies.

ISPs are right, but of course technology can be used for ill too - especially when the firms that provide the pipes are often in the business of making the content for those pipes too.

If an ISP decided to use traffic management for ill, it could seriously impact its competitors: "Oh dear!", it might say. "Our rivals' video streams have gone all crappy, just before the X Factor final!"

Ofcom would rather they didn't do that.

Velvet glove, iron fist

Ofcom isn't showing its teeth just yet - it's only telling ISPs what it would like to see, rather than making dire threats or putting on its angry face - but that doesn't mean it won't.

"If Ofcom though that in the future [...] innovation was under threat from traffic management... then Ofcom could use its powers to impose minimum quality of service levels on ISPs," it says.

Ofcom's requests seem perfectly reasonable to me. ISPs should strive to deliver a "best efforts" service, where traffic management is used only to ensure that heavy users don't ruin things for everybody else; if they're using traffic management, they should make it abundantly clear what that means for their customers.

In practice that means ISPs should make it clear what speeds customers should expect - not the magical space pixie speeds attached to the words "up to", but the actual speed you're likely to get in the real world - and what kinds of services are affected by traffic management policies.

ISPs should also warn users if specific services are blocked.

As Ofcom puts it: "A consumer paying for 'internet access' should expect this to include the full range of services available over the open internet. ISPs should not use the term 'internet access' to refer to a service that blocks lawfully available internet services."

In other words, ISPs can't just paint ducks white and tell us they're swans.


Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.