This article is the first in a series of articles looking back at the history of the association as ISPA celebrates its twentieth anniversary.

To help, we have gone back and spoken to former chairs of the association to discuss their time as chair of the association and get their take on the future of the industry.

In our first article, we’ve asked our first three chairs - Shez Hamill, Peter Dawe, and Claire Laurent (nee Gilbert) - on what it was like to get ISPA off the ground and the role of the association in getting the internet into the mainstream. ISPA grew significantly in this period, from 27 founding members to over 100 by the turn of the millennium.

The second piece will cover the period when the internet became something we couldn’t live without up to the present day and the final piece will look to the next twenty years and what we think the next parliament needs to do to help the internet industry develop and grow even further.

Early successes

ISPA was formed in 1995 after 27 ISPs across the UK saw the need for a unified voice against hostile media and politicians who saw the internet as a threat. The first two chairs of ISPA had the daunting task of bringing together a fledgling group of companies with contrasting opinions who were all selling the new concept of internet access.

Against this backfrop, ISPA had some early successes that paved the way for the internet industry to thrive in the UK. The first ever Code of Practice for ISPs was quickly established and was copied across the world, and the first ISPA Awards took place in 1999. ISPA further secured key principles on where ISP liability started and ended and ISPA ensured the UK internet industry was competitive for consumers and businesses.

In the early days of the UK internet industry, people were worried about the unknown and according to Shez Hamill, there was a genuine parliamentary motion to ban the internet (some politicians would like this)! On the need to help shape the debate, Hamill said “members rallied to ISPA and it quickly proved its worth in changing the political and press climate for the industry”. On getting the regulatory environment right, he said the key to success was fostering a spirit of co-operation with the DTi (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and ISPA was quickly seen as the platform for rational debate about internet issues.

The business model at the time saw a lot of ISPs offer ‘free’ internet access, however this was un-viable and a metered charging model based on telephone calls become the norm. Whilst it was a challenge for consumers to see the benefits of going online, business bought into the idea of the internet and it's cost and time saving potential (e-mail was a key driver of this).

The market matures

ISPA ensured the internet become “more than a passing fad”, with Government eventually embracing the opportunities and potential of this technology. Speeds got faster and flat pricing ensured people could stay online longer and utilise what the web had to offer.  More schools and businesses went online, as did major brands and news outlets (such as the BBC). Websites that endure today (eBay, Amazon) gained traction with UK in the late 90s among consumers, who felt confident in sharing their payment details online.

The internet industr had shifted from being primarily B2B to becoming a consumer facing industry and at this point ISPA was considered a reputable self-regulatory body at the forefront of a rapidly growing industry. Peter Dawe and Claire Laurent both said that BT entering the market was a significant development, with Laurent adding it was an interesting time to be chair when broadband hit the market and LLU was introduced, significantly lowering the barrier to entry for new ISPs.

Issues and challenges

All the chairs noted that the issues they faced are remarkably similar as today. Hamill and Dawe said changing the overall negative attitude was a particular challenge in the early days as people had a natural fear of the unknown and there were regular media stories about the threats posed by the internet.

One of the biggest and most controversial early challenges was taking action against child abuse content hosted on newsgroups within UK. Following pressure from law enforcement and politicians ISPA, the industry, government and law enforcement came together and agreed to the principles of rating, reporting and responsibility. Out of this came the independent self-regulatory Internet Watch Foundation. The Hotline was formally launched in December 1996 to combat child sexual abuse images and criminally obscene adult content hosted in the UK. The IWF has gone from strength-to-strength and serves as a successful model for tackling child abuse content.

Away from child abuse content, Laurent told ISPA “Content and surveillance were then, as now, huge challenges for ISPs and law enforcement” and it “was not easy” to balance responsibility of users, ISPs and Government and the industry took a responsible approach and proved self-regulation was an effective tool.

She also added that ISPs needed to defend themselves robustly as the internet began to challenge existing business models in the late 90s. ISPA played a role in major European legislation, with the E-commerce and Copyright Directive laying down fundamental principles for how the internet is governed that carry on today. All the chairs noted that ISPs were easy targets, and it was through ISPA that the ‘mere conduit’ proposal became an important industry concept.

Our next piece will look at the internet in the early to mid-2000s, a time of major change. The internet was emerging from the dot-com crash and the emergence of broadband and ‘web 2.0’ which saw the internet become something people couldn’t live without.

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