21st Mar 2018

Net neutrality debate hots up in Brussels

A Brussels summit and a three-month consultation of internet service providers, telecoms firms, consumer groups and civil liberties activists on the topic of ‘net neutrality' carried out by the European Commission, whose results were published this week, reveal wide divisions amongst stakeholders in the sector over how to maintain an open internet.

The packets of information that currently wend their way across the information superhighway are delivered without favour. No data is accorded 'fast lane' privileges, with no discrimination depending on either the type of information or where it comes from.

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  • Is a 'managed' internet the future of the online world? (Photo: Flickr)

A number of internet activists and providers of certain services online are frightened that this status quo may come to an end if internet service providers begin to offer 'quality of service' guarantees to certain content providers in return for a premium fee. This would guarantee that information from premium-paying content providers reach users ahead of others.

Internet Service Providers, (ISPs) argue that such managed provision of the internet is necessary to avoid heavy bandwidth services such as YouTube or its French rival, Daily Motion, from, in effect, 'hogging the tubes' and that enforced net neutrality would hinder innovation.

Open internet activists however fear that this could lead to wealthy content providers loading quickly while those of an individual blogger might load more slowly, or in some cases, blocking the delivery of certain forms of content altogether. Some providers have already started blocking access to voice over internet protocol services such as Skype to prevent it from cannibalising telecoms services.

Thus activists want legislators to intervene with regulation ensuring the maintenance of neutrality in the delivery of information - or 'net neutrality'.

The topic is highly controversial, as was revealed by the result of the commission's consultation. A number of respondents said that 'traffic management' is inevitable and desirable in order to support efficient networks.

Most however backed the maintenance of open networks in order to prevent some services being prioritised over others.

At a minimum, the commission was told by stakeholders that firms should be 'labelled', as either neutral providers or those that offer ‘managed services'.

"Several respondents are concerned about new internet business models causing net neutrality problems in the future, and have asked the commission to provide clarity," the commission said in a statement upon the release of the consultation results.

The debate over the issue continued at a summit in the European Parliament. Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said that the commission supports an open internet but that the EU executive is reluctant to move in the direction of legislation.

Appearing to take the side of those who favour the development of managed services, she said: "We need investment to avoid bottlenecks and to allow the development of new bandwidth-hungry services and applications."

"We should allow network operators and services and content providers to explore innovative business models, leading to a more efficient use of the networks and creating new business opportunities," she continued, giving the examples of e-health and e-learning services as products whose development may require traffic management.

She said that while the decision of some providers to block certain services, such as Skype, that the best way to maintain an open internet was for customers to just purchase internet service from providers that are committed to neutrality.

"I say to those people who are currently cut off from Skype: vote with your feet and leave your mobile provider," she said.

Railing against such thinking, Jeremie Zimmerman of La Quadrature du Net, an online civil liberties outfit, told the summit: "Net neutrality must be made into law. Provisions aiming at competition and transparency have proven ineffective to protect it. This fundamental principle must by guaranteed through EU-wide regulation."

"Failing this, freedom of communication as well as innovation in the EU will be undermined," he said.

The commission is now to use results of the consultation and the summit as the basis of a report on the subject, which will be issued by the end of December.

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