Time to Fight for Net Neutrality in the EU

Net neutrality is one of those areas that most people are vaguely in favour of, without giving it much thought. Governments take advantage of this to make sympathetic noises while doing precisely nothing to preserve it. For example, following a...


Net neutrality is one of those areas that most people are vaguely in favour of, without giving it much thought. Governments take advantage of this to make sympathetic noises while doing precisely nothing to preserve it. For example, following a UK consultation on net neutrality two years ago, Ofcom came out with a very wishy-washy statement that basically said we think net neutrality is a jolly good idea but we won't actually do anything to protect it.

That was particularly regrettable because already there were clear cases of UK operators undermining net neutrality. Since then, things have only got worse, as an important report [.pdf] from BEREC (Board of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) released earlier this year makes only too plain.

Although it's relatively short, and has plenty of easy-to-absorb graphs, there's a great summary of the findings from La Quadrature du Net, which has been following net neutrality closely (as well as playing a key role in helping to defeat ACTA in Europe):

Some examples of special treatment for over-the-top traffic reported by fixed operators are prioritisation of certain kind of traffic or applications at peak times (such as HTTP, DNS, VoIP, gaming, instant messaging, etc.), and assigning lower priority to applications such as file downloading, P2P, etc. In mobile networks, it is worth to mention some cases of applications or websites which are excluded from the monthly data cap (HTTP traffic, customer care portals or applications such as Facebook).

As regards P2P, some level of restriction is reported by 49 operators (out of 266) on fixed networks and by 41 operators (out of 115) on mobile networks. As regards VoIP, some level of restriction is reported by 28 operators (out of 115) on mobile networks. Each of these types of restrictions affects at least 20% of subscribers.

Even the European Commission, which, like the UK government, prefers just to avert its glance and hope for the best when it comes to attacks on net neutrality, felt compelled to do something:

The European Commission is today launching a public consultation seeking answers to questions on transparency, switching and certain aspects of internet traffic management, with a view to its commitment to preserve the open and neutral character of the Internet.

These questions have emerged as key issues in the "net neutrality" debate that has taken place in Europe over the past years, including the recent findings of the Body of European Regulators of European Communications (BEREC).

The consultation has a dedicated page with some background information. Here's the heart of what the consultation is about:

In the light of the BEREC results, the Commission concluded that the problems identified warrant targeted action to safeguard and empower consumers. Moreover, all market players need more regulatory certainty to promote the efficient use of networks, infrastructure investments and the development of new business models. The Commission considers regulatory intervention in competitive markets as inappropriate unless it is the only way to solve problems. In a competitive environment consumers are able to change their operator if the latter does not provide the wanted services or restricts their Internet access. For competition to become effective consumers need to be well informed about the characteristics of the services they are offered and they – or at least a sufficient number of them to constrain a given operator – must be able to easily switch between services and service providers.

Again, that gives a clear hint that the Commission hopes to avoid having to intervene through new regulations.

The consultation also touches on another extremely contentious area: Deep Packet Inspection:

In order to allow consumers to have access to Internet service offers that truly meet their needs and to enable them to effectively exercise their choices, the Commission is envisaging policy measures addressing the issues of transparency, switching and certain aspects of traffic management, including deep packet inspection (DPI). DPI technologies examine different layers (header and content) of data packets to decide whether a packet may pass or needs to be routed to a different destination. DPI can be used to protect the network and users against malware (viruses etc.) but also to block or slow down other data packets. Union-wide guidance on these issues would avoid diverging approaches in the Member States and a fragmentation of the Digital Single Market.

The use of DPI to implement traffic shaping is another compelling reason to insist on net neutrality. If not, the danger is that DPI will be justified on the grounds that it is needed to manage traffic, and then the logic will be that since ISPs have DPI at their disposal it could also be used for certain "limited" purposes – you know, the usual "just to catch terrorists and paedophiles" argument – after which it would be generalised to check the legality of all content flowing through your connection (although the European Court of Justice might have something to say about that, luckily...)

The consultation is open until 15 October, and individuals can makes submissions online, as can businesses and organisations. Alternatively, you can submit a written response to [email protected] You can also do both, which what I intend to do; I shall be posting my response here tomorrow.

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