EU to water down net neutrality rules

[Mike Licht/Flickr]

European Union governments are considering less stringent rules on how internet service providers manage traffic on their networks, according to a draft seen by Reuters, a move that could be welcomed by Europe’s large telecoms operators.

These so-called net neutrality rules are part of the European Commission’s proposed overhaul of Europe’s telecoms industry to help it to compete against rivals the United States and Asia.

Net neutrality is the principle that all content providers should have equal access on networks (see background). It has become a hot topic in the United States where President Barack Obama has said internet service providers should be banned from striking paid “fast lane” deals with content companies.

EU lawmakers voted in April for strict net neutrality rules that barred telecoms operators like Orange and Telefonica from prioritising some internet traffic over others.

But the latest draft of the reform proposal shows that member states are leaning towards a looser approach which only bars internet service providers from applying traffic management measures which “block, slow down, alter, degrade or discriminate against specific content.”

It does not define net neutrality or so-called “specialised services,” which would have specified the types of content that operators could prioritise over others.

Large telecoms companies have said they want to be allowed to provide quicker internet access to bandwidth-hungry services like Google’s YouTube and Netflix.

The draft text also includes provisions on roaming charges paid by consumers when using their mobile phones abroad.

The Commission and the European Parliament had pushed for an end to such charges by the end of next year.

But regulators and member states are concerned about what effect an end to roaming charges would have on domestic rates and wholesale prices telecoms operators pay each other when their customers travel abroad.

The latest text does not specify a date for the introduction of “roam like at home,” where someone using, say, a British mobile phone in Italy would pay the same as if they were still in Britain. But it acknowledges the need for a specific date to send a positive signal for consumers at a time of widespread discontent with Brussels.

Member states will discuss the text on Thursday and Friday, and if agreed it will go to ministers when they meet in two weeks. 

Net Neutrality is a term referring to the freedom users have to access online services, such as Skype or Spotify, without experiencing a slower-than-usual connection.

The issue became widely known when national telecoms regulators began accusing Internet access providers, such as telecoms or cable firms, of slowing down traffic for specific services.

Reasons to do so can be many. Net Neutrality paladins accuse ISPs of slowing free services to favour paid platforms. If this trend continued, the Internet would become something very different from the free environment it is nowadays, they claim.

Another accusation is that top ISPs in Europe happen to be big telecoms groups, which see in certain services, such as Skype, crucial competitors to their off-line offers. Obviously, making Skype and its competitors less functional would help push consumers back to traditional telephone subscriptions.

The industry says that the occasional slowing down of connections is a normal traffic management action aimed at ensuring the smooth functioning of the Internet. It is also necessary to allow the growth of innovative and specialised (and also paid) services, such as data-intensive cloud applications, or video on demand.

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