EU set to unveil neutral net neutrality plans


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. 

"The European Union has missed the opportunity to safeguard net neutrality as a fundamental regulatory principle during the revision of telecom rules in 2009. By allowing in the Telecoms Package the possibility for network providers to engage in traffic management as a default rule, the EU has opened the door to potentially unfair and discriminatory traffic control on the Internet," argued Kostas Rossoglou, a legal officer at EU consumer group BEUC.

"Although traffic management may be necessary in specific cases, such as control of traffic in extraordinary cases of temporary network congestion or for reasons related to the security of the network, Internet Service Providers should bear the burden of proof that there is conclusive evidence of congestion or that this is an imperative necessity for the functioning of the network," Rossoglou continued.

"Consumers in Europe benefit from a highly competitive market place for broadband Internet access, choosing from a range of providers and options to access and use the Internet. Competition is driving users' ability to access to content, applications and services they require, be it on fixed or mobile networks," according to a statement from ETNO, a lobby group which represents the telecoms industry. 

Tim Berners Lee, often dubbed 'the father of the Web', ranks among the high-profile personalities to have publicly lobbied for regulation to mandate the neutrality of the Internet. However, others have argued that regulation is unnecessary and would threaten innovation.

At the heart of the issue is whether access to Internet services or content should be controlled and filtered rather than left free and provided according to the principle of 'best effort'. 

This principle implies that no provider can prioritise traffic on the Net for economic reasons. Instead, every user should be served with the providers' 'best effort'. This criterion has seen derogations in order to allow more professional use of the Internet. Therefore, a business user willing to pay more gets a faster and better connection.

However, extending this concept to many more users would run the risk of the majority getting such a poor service that it will prevent them from using the Internet. The borders between the two needs are currently being defined, and are subject to technological and regulatory developments.

The issue of net neutrality was first debated in the US a while ago, and is now generating intense debate in Brussels. It was also included in the EU's review of telecoms rules (EURACTIV 12/06/09). 

  • 19 April: European Commission to unveil communication on Net Neutrality.

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