The core business of most internet service providers (ISPs) is the provision of internet access to customers. However, they are increasingly seen as de facto gatekeepers of the internet, and this has brought additional challenges to the traditional role of an ISP.
Content owners want ISPs to play a more central role in preventing, detecting, monitoring and punishing illegal file sharing. The recent interim report on Digital Britain includes a proposal to create a UK Rights Agency that will monitor the activities of suspected copyright infringers.
That is likely to mean ISPs will have to invest in better ways to track, monitor and control network traffic, in order to deliver better services, promote fair use and support law enforcement agencies in tackling serious crimes.
However, the ISPs will also be acutely aware of customer concerns. They cannot take actions that may alienate or irritate the customer. They need to involve customers in these initiatives, or risk losing market share, or becoming vilified for invasion of privacy.
To that extent, they must resist excessive external pressures – content owners need ISPs as much as ISPs need them, perhaps even more so. Either way, customers are the big prize; therefore protecting their customer relationships must count for more with the ISP.
Ultimately, there is no easy way to prevent what is likely to be the natural evolution of the internet into an abundant, ubiquitous resource like electricity. But just as in electricity distribution, it would still require an ecosystem of service and infrastructure providers to function smoothly.
Therefore the greatest challenge for ISPs will be how to pick the right role, at the right time, in order to avoid losing their critical position as a key gateway, for most users, to the information super-highway. In other words, ISPs must embrace and protect their niche in the evolving digital access/content ecosystem or face extinction.
Jude Umeh is a BCS contributor