Public consultation on 'net neutrality' to delay EU rules on ISPs
By Benjamin Fox
Plans for tighter EU rules on Internet service providers have been pushed back to 2013 after the European Commission this week launched a public consultation lasting until mid-October.
The EU executive is seeking information about whether service providers manipulate online traffic management to promote their own products, and give web users sufficient power to easily switch operators, as part of its response to the "net neutrality" debate.
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The move comes weeks after BEREC, the pan-European group of national Internet regulators, published a report claiming that between 20 and 50 per cent of Internet providers in Europe use software to block or restrict access to web sites and products run by rival companies.
Internet campaign groups complain that attempts by online service providers to block or restrict access online, while at the same time promoting their own services, distort the online market and are an abuse of their market position.
Under the EU's electronic communications rules consumers are entitled to be able to run applications and services of their choice without restriction. However, evidence collected by BEREC suggests that a sizeable number of Europeans have broadband contracts that give operators the right to limit access to services such as Voip (Voice over Internet Protocol) and file-sharing sites.
The regulators, who took evidence from over 400 Internet operators as well as trade organisations and individual users, found that 49 of the 266 fixed network operators and 41 of the 115 mobile networks had restricted access to sites. Bandwidth throttling, where a network provider deliberately slows down the Internet service on targeted websites, was identified as the most common restriction
"There is a lack of effective consumer choice when it comes to Internet offers," said Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes.
She also indicated her intention to "use this consultation to help prepare recommendations that will generate more real choices and end the net neutrality waiting game in Europe."
Despite this, the Commission favours binding regulation as a last resort, stating that the EU executive "considers regulatory intervention in competitive markets as inappropriate unless it is the only way to solve problems."
Following the release of the first BEREC report in May, Commissioner Kroes indicated that new EU guidelines would be released in 2012 claiming that the regulators had "provided the data I was looking for". However, the new consultation will last until mid-October with the Commission publishing proposals in early 2013.