It's been a while since I wrote about net neutrality, but of course it's never gone away as an important theme. Indeed, it was inevitable that it would start to rear its ugly head again, since so many powerful companies have vested interests in destroying it. For example, in Germany the telecom giant Deutsch Telekom (DT) has already made a move to kill net neutrality by giving preference to its own IPTV platform. This has led to a heated debate about net neutrality in that country (for those who read German, the site hilf-telekom.de offers some hilarious satire of DT on the subject.)
In the UK, the net neutrality debate is not quite so visible, but that may well change in the wake of an interesting speech given this week by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda. It was entitled "The EU, safeguarding the open internet for all", and contains the following proposals:
First, we should allow innovation. The new services round the corner depend not just on content, but on high-quality connections. For example, if you've just bought a videoconferencing system, you'll probably also want an internet service that guarantees the right quality, end-to-end. If someone wants to pay extra for that, no EU rules should stand in their way; it's not my job to ban people from buying those services, nor to prevent people providing them. If you don't want to buy them that is also fine, and you should absolutely continue to benefit from the "best efforts internet".
Second, we must ensure transparency. Before you sign up to an internet contract, you want to know key details. What's included, what's not; and, in particular, what speed you'll actually get. Too often those are hidden away in long and complex contracts. That's not good enough. We all deserve a clear promise before signing up - not a nasty surprise after. After all, when you buy a carton of milk, you don't expect it to be half-empty: the same goes for 50 Megabit internet.
Third, people need choice in their internet services. A real choice, not a theoretical one. If they want to switch providers, they should be able to do so, without countless obstructions. And, in practice, there are many barriers to switching: like excessive charges, modem hire, or email addresses. We will be looking at those barriers, and removing them. In particular, there needs to be an end to annoying practices - like quietly extending a contract for another year without asking. It's time to put people back in the driving seat.
And fourth, innovation also needs competition. Services like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or messaging services - like Skype or WhatsApp - offer real innovation for consumers. But some ISPs deliberately degrade those services, or block them outright, simply to avoid the competition.
Picking up on that last point about blocking and discrimination, Kroes went on:
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 big question then becomes: how exactly will that "guarantee" be framed? I doubt somehow that it will actually forbid companies from offering services that break net neutrality. It seems more likely that they will be forced to offer at least one service that does respect it, alongside those that don't. However, that doesn't really solve the problem, since that "open" service just has to be open: it doesn't have to be good value or well run.
So, it's good to hear Kroes making these comments about and commitments to net neutrality, but we need to see the details of how the European Commission proposes to provide these "safeguards" before we start rejoicing. Me, I'm not holding my breath.