1st Dec 2021

Brussels: No regulation needed to preserve net neutrality

  • Digital rights advocates say that no data should get an express lane (Photo: Washington State Department of Transport)

The European Commission has decided against introducing legislation to protect net neutrality on the continent, preferring to leave it to the market to resolve any concerns about the blockage or throttling of services or content.

Net neutrality, one of the most contested issues surrounding the internet, would preserve the passage of data across the information superhighway without discrimination regarding their nature or source.

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Digital rights activists have in recent years called for legislation to preserve this indifference, or 'neutrality', and prevent 'fast-lane' privileges for some content or service providers that pay a premium fee on the one hand, and to bring an end to the blocking of some services that compete with telecom providers' other services such as Skype.

Internet service providers meanwhile have lobbied hard to prevent the introduction of such legislation, saying that they need to be able to 'manage the traffic' on the internet to prevent some services, notably video content from the likes of YouTube or DailyMotion, from 'hogging the tubes'.

In a commission report released on Tuesday (19 April), the EU executive agreed with this logic, saying that traffic management on the internet "is necessary to ensure the smooth flow of internet traffic, particularly at times when networks become congested, and so guarantee a consistent good quality of service."

"Operators should be allowed to determine their own business models and commercial arrangements."

Unveiling the report outlining the Brussels approach to the issue, Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said however that the EU executive will keep an eye out for examples of blocking or throttling of services, with a particularly tight watch for efforts to undermine internet telephony.

The report says some providers are already throttling peer-to-peer file-sharing or video streaming in France, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and the United Kingdom, and blocking or charging extra for internet telephony over mobile networks in Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania.

The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec) has been tasked by Kroes to undertake a "rigorous fact-finding exercise" on the subject. If Berec finds that ISPs are regularly blocking access to certain services, she may issue further "guidance" or even legislation to prevent what she called "anti-competitive" behaviour.

"If I am not satisfied, I will not hesitate to come up with more stringent measures," she said.

But a wider, dedicated, net neutrality law - the sort of intervention digital rights advocates have demanded - was deemed unnecessary.

By ensuring sufficient transparency in the contracts consumers sign, so that individuals are made aware of any traffic management or tiering, the commission believes that markets will be sufficient to ensure that the internet remains open and neutral.

Under a new EU telecoms law due to enter into effect on 25 May this year, there will be an obligation for telecoms providers to inform consumers before signing a contract about "the precise nature of the service to which they are subscribing, including traffic management techniques."

Then, if enough customers want net neutrality, they will pick the provider that offers this.

The report out on Tuesday is the product of a 2009 EU telecoms reform package. The package required that the commission "enshrine net neutrality as a policy objective and regulatory principle". With the publication of the report and its threat of further action, the EU executive says it is fulfilling this commitment.

Digital rights advocates however accuse the commission of bending to the pressure of telecoms lobbyists.

"Under heavy pressure, Kroes has carefully avoided taking any action to regulate the way internet access providers discriminate their users' internet traffic," said La Quadrature du Net, an online civil liberties pressure group.

"The report actually recycles many statements from the telecoms lobby in order to present them as consensual truths ... stating that there is no problem and that any bad behaviour will be solved by the market anyway."

"This clearly favors telecoms operators who want to boost their profit margins by discriminating users' communications," said Félix Tréguer, a campaigner with the organisation.

Cable Europe, a trade association representing the cable industry, for its part welcomed the decision.

"Individual companies that behave anti-competitively can be sanctioned through current provisions," said Caroline Van Weede, the group's director, who added that the customer herself is the best guarantor of net neutrality.

"In the end, the sanction of the customer is most swift given countless social networking tools, blogs and fast moving web publications. We can simply not afford to violate their trust."

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