Out-Law News 3 min. read
05 Jun 2013, 12:54 pm
Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner responsible for the EU's Digital Agenda, said that the plans would permit internet service providers (ISPs) to engage in limited 'traffic management' but said they would be banned from "blocking or throttling" services offered by rivals.
ISPs sometimes block or slow down users' access to some content during busy periods on their networks, but can also benefit from this kind of "traffic management" by charging content providers who are willing to pay for preferential access to their subscribers or by charging users more for fewer restrictions. Net neutrality is the principle that an ISP will deliver all content requested by a customer equally, not allowing content producers to have preferential access to subscribers.
Controversy over net neutrality has been most prevalent in the US where some telecoms companies have said that content producers should share the cost of network building and maintenance. Opponents of that view claim that subscribers' fees to ISPs should buy them access to all information equally, not to a service in which some content is prioritised because of deals between ISPs and content producers.
Kroes said that draft new laws on net neutrality, which are expected to be formally published in July according to an EU Observer report, would seek to promote "competition, innovation, transparency, and choice". She said the proposals would ensure that ISPs do not use "commercial tactics" to limit access to competing services.
"Services like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or messaging services – like Skype or WhatsApp – offer real innovation for consumers," Kroes said in a recent speech at the European Parliament. "But some ISPs deliberately degrade those services, or block them outright, simply to avoid the competition. In my view, such ideas are on their way out. Most consumers see the richness and vibrancy of the full, unlimited internet and wouldn't want anything less. So to be honest, with genuine transparency, I doubt many consumers would care to buy such a limited product; I doubt many ISPs would offer one."
"But equally it's clear to me that many Europeans expect protection against such commercial tactics. And that is exactly the EU safeguard we will be providing. A safeguard for every European, on every device, on every network: a guarantee of access to the full and open internet, without any blocking or throttling of competing services," the Commissioner added.
Kroes said that the new framework would oblige ISPs to be more open about the nature, and particularly the actual speed, of connections consumers will experience using their services. She said it was "not good enough" for ISPs to keep that information "hidden away in long and complex contracts".
ISPs will not be forced to provide every consumer with full access to content under the plans, but said that consumers who pay extra for services dependent on "high-quality connections" should not be left disappointed, Kroes said. Consumers who do not wish to pay extra for such services "should absolutely continue to benefit from the 'best efforts internet'", she said.
There is no specific framework that sets out rules on net neutrality across the EU currently, although a net neutrality regime is in place in the Netherlands. However, there are some existing EU rules around the issue of internet access and services that do apply.
Under the EU's Framework for Electronic Communications Directive member states must ensure that national regulatory authorities "take all reasonable measures" proportionate to "promote the interests of the citizens of the European Union by ... promoting the ability of end-users to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice".
Other rules set out in the Universal Services Directive require ISPs to provide consumers with "comparable, adequate and up-to-date information for end-users on the quality of their services" as well as "transparent and up-to-date" details on prices, tariffs and contractual terms and conditions. Under the Directive regulators can choose whether or not ISPs should be required to maintain a minimum quality of service.
In the UK, Ofcom has previously distanced itself from imposing minimum quality of service standards on ISPs. The regulator has accepted that some 'traffic management' techniques are necessarily used by ISPs to ensure an efficient service, but it has said that ISPs must leave enough spare network capacity to deliver a 'best efforts' service, where access is generally "open" and "equal" for users.
Kroes said that new EU rules should provide consumers with "real choice" by enabling them to switch between ISPs "without countless obstructions", such as having to pay "excessive charges" to exit contracts or being tied to using particular email addresses.
"This is about delivering the best deal for citizens, full stop," she said. "Ensuring they get the fairest deals, the most choice, the best new services over the fastest networks. So my proposals will do that: with new rights for every citizen – and new obligations for every internet provider. To protect consumers – without tying down their freedom of choice. To maintain the incentives to upgrade to better infrastructure. To safeguard the open internet for every European – and keep it for a platform for rich and vibrant content – as a network at the heart of our economy, our society, and our connected continent."