Parliament pushes for keeping Internet open

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The European Parliament adopted yesterday (17 November) a clear-cut position on net neutrality, giving the priority to maintaining an open Internet for all rather than increasing its use for commercial purposes.

A resolution passed by MEPs in Strasbourg calls on the European Commission to ensure that “Internet service providers do not block, discriminate against or impair the ability of any person to use or offer any service, content or application of their choice irrespective of source or target.”

As the Internet evolves into a crucial market for an ever-increasing number of services, many Internet service providers are stepping up their attempts to prioritise traffic in order to offer the best and quickest services to those who pay more.

Most controversial is the intentional slow-down of Internet connections – also referred as ‘throttling’ – for clients who do not pay the full price. Some are even inclined to block specific services such as Skype, to avoid competition with their traditional telephony services.

In their resolution, MEPs did recognise the need for a “reasonable” management of data traffic to ensure that the Internet continues to run smoothly. However, the Parliament also clearly underlined that anti-competitive practices should not be allowed.

MEPs asked the Commission to “closely monitor the development of traffic management practices and interconnection agreements, in particular in relation to blocking and throttling of, or excessive pricing for, VoIP and file sharing, as well as anticompetitive behaviour and excessive degradation of quality”.

The text adopted reiterated privacy and data protection concerns raised by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) who issued an opinion last October warning of “serious implications” for the security of personal data due to an excessively intrusive interpretation of traffic management.

Commission still in 'listening mode'

The EU's Digital Agenda commissioner, Neelie Kroes, stands accused by many MEPs of keeping an “ambiguous” approach to net neutrality.

The Commission indeed refrained from taking a definitive position on traffic management in its communication on net neutrality published last April. However, it did made clear that further monitoring of dubious practices was required and could lead to regulatory measures in the future.

This analysis is still ongoing, explained Kroes’ spokesperson Ryan Heath. “The Commission is monitoring the development of traffic management. To this end it has tasked BEREC (the Body of national telecoms regulators) to carry out investigations on net neutrality and traffic management, including instances of blocking and throttling. This work is currently ongoing,” Heath said, postponing any decision until this monitoring exercise is concluded.

It remains unclear at this stage whether the Commission will come up with new “guidance” for the sector or with binding legislation.

“Reasonable data traffic management is required and very useful to prevent network congestion and the smooth running of applications and services. Nonetheless, it is clearly understood that traffic management practices must not be used for anti-competitive purposes,” said German MEP Herbert Reul (European People's Party), who chairs the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee.

Aside from competition, the Socialists and the Greens are also worried about the negative effects that breaches of net neutrality could have on basic rights, such as freedom of expression.

“Some companies are using ‘traffic management’ not just to solve congestion issues rapidly, but also to block and throttle certain services, thus harming freedom of expression, competition and consumer choice,” said Catherine Trautmann, spokesperson on net neutrality for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

“We call on the Commission to live up to its responsibilities and come up with binding legislation to guarantee net neutrality because guidelines have not always proved to be effective,” she added.

Trautmann’s line is echoed by the Greens. “Net neutrality and open Internet is increasingly coming under threat, both in EU member states and beyond. The EP has today made clear that this core principle must be guaranteed across Europe,” said Green MEP Philippe Lamberts.

“The Greens are calling on the European Commission to enshrine net neutrality and the rights of Internet users in European legislation, and on Commissioner Kroes to end her ambiguous stance on this vital issue,” Lamberts said in a statement.

But not everybody shares this view.

“The resolution of the European Parliament marks a step backwards. Traffic management should be permitted to the extent that it is objectively needed to safeguard both the interests of end users and the incentives to invest in new networks. MEPs seem ready to sacrifice the future of the information society on the altar of an apparently attractive word. But ‘neutral’ does not mean ‘dumb’,” said Andrea Renda from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a think-tank.

“We do not share the view that the European Parliament’s net neutrality resolution contradicts the Commission’s approach. The resolution calls on the Commission to monitor the development of traffic management and ensure the consistent application and enforcement of the existing EU rules, and assess whether further regulatory measures are needed. This is exactly what the Commission is doing,” said Ryan Heath, spokesperson for Neelie Kroes, the EU's Digital Agenda commissioner.

At the heart of the controversy concerning net neutrality is whether access to Internet services or content should be controlled and filtered or left untouched according to the principle of ‘best effort’.

This principle implies that no Internet service 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 uses of the Internet. Therefore, a business user willing to pay more gets a faster and better connection.

However, extending this concept to all users would run the risk that the majority would get 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 among EU policymakers. In April the Commission presented a paper that left many questions unanswered on the way forward.

  • 13 Dec. 2011: EU telecoms ministers to discuss Net Neutrality.
  • End 2011/beginning 2012: Commission expected to conclude analysis of traffic management practices.

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