The European Commission will unveil proposals to foster a neutral and competitive Internet on Tuesday (19 April), drawing praise from big industry for its cautiousness while consumer groups and activists lament its lack of substance.
While the US has long since passed legislation to ensure an open Internet, the EU has been struggling to catch up.
In a draft proposal seen by EURACTIV, the European Commission does its homework on possible infringements of net neutrality but prefers to adopt a wait-and-see approach before coming up with concrete measures to prevent network operators and Internet providers from forging monopolies.
As more European media consumption – such as radio, TV, telephony and video conferencing – migrates to the web, regulators are concerned about operators' attempts to block or slow down services which compete with their own or don't yield much profit, effectively creating fast lanes and slow lanes for different services.
The term 'net neutrality' was coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who has written widely on the rise of Internet monopolies such as Google and Facebook. Ironically, without a neutral net, which allows consumers to get the services they need when they need them, the Facebooks of tomorrow will not be able to build up the same critical mass and reputation.
Wait and see
The EU paper admits that problems have been detected such as blocking of Internet telephony and anticompetitive traffic management, but also claims these have so far been dealt with by a national regulator or negative media coverage.
The paper also points out that member states are still transposing the hotly debated Telecoms Framework and if these provisions fall short on delivering a neutral net, then it may be in a position to legislate.
The Telecoms Framework, which was finally agreed in late 2009, requires operators and providers to give consumers more information on their service and how traffic is managed and makes it easier for them to switch provider. The deadline for national adoption is 25 May this year.
According to the paper, any further legislation would likely try to make it even easier for consumers to switch providers or oblige providers to lighten up on their data traffic management.
Big players relieved
While big market players breathe a sigh of relief, consumer groups and advocacy groups are left disappointed.
Sources close to the Commission reveal that the pressure applied by large telecoms lobbies was too great to adopt a tougher stance on partisanship in the Internet.
"In highly competitive markets for fixed and mobile broadband, any further, pre-emptive regulation that would restrict traffic management and service differentiation would undermine Europe's digital economy by excluding new business models, locking in today's technologies, and hampering necessary innovation," reads a statement from the European Telecommunications and Network Operators association (ETNO).
In glaring contrast to the industry's claims, Internet activists La Quadrature du Net argue that monopolies are thriving and that the situation in the EU is already out of control.
According to Jérémie Zimmermann, the founder of the Internet advocacy group, Bouygues, SFR and Orange – the three largest telcoms firms in France – are already infringing net neutrality by banning VOIP, peer-to-peer file sharing and discussion forum newsgroups on their mobile connections.
France is currently engaged in a heated debate on the matter and its parliament last week issued an 80-page paper on how to tackle the problem. Zimmerman points to the irony that France, a country with a reputation for hardline Internet policies, is on the face of it doing more than the European Commission.
"It is interesting to see that the French parliament issues a document saying we should act and the European Commission issues something saying we should wait and see."
According to regulators' findings the EU's net services are not exactly neutral.
Internet speed limits (or in Internet speak, throttling) were applied by unnamed operators in France, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom, according to recent findings from the Body of European regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC).
Operators in Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania were found out for blocking or slapping on extra charges for VOIP on mobile networks.
Consumer organisation BEUC points out that even though Norway was the first country to legislate on net neutrality, its biggest operator stands accused of offering some content providers prioritised transmission.