Europe needs to keep up with US on net neutrality issue

Many proponents believe Europe’s rules are just semi-net neutral and full of loopholes

Net neutrality:  helps ensure a fairer playing field for new companies that might wish to offer a service that competes with established companies or develop new technology that uses significant bandwidth. Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Net neutrality: helps ensure a fairer playing field for new companies that might wish to offer a service that competes with established companies or develop new technology that uses significant bandwidth. Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

 

Net neutrality – the concept that all data traffic on the internet should be treated equally – is back on the agenda in a big way right now in the United States and Europe.

In the US, a federal appeals court this week backed the Obama administration’s view that internet service providers and telecoms and cable companies shouldn’t be allowed to charge more for the delivery or receipt of services based on how much bandwidth is needed to do so.

In other words, neither Netflix nor its customers should pay a premium simply because streaming a film or television programme uses far more bandwidth than ordering a book online, filing a tax return or sending an email.

In the US case, a challenge taken by telecommunications providers to net neutrality rules implemented last year by the US Federal Communication Commission, a three-judge appellate court in Washington DC, sided with the FCC in viewing telecoms companies as utilities that should be neutral carriers of data, not gatekeepers.

According to the court, telecoms companies should “act as neutral, indiscriminate platforms for transmission of speech”.

Bandwidth

However, net neutrality is vitally important. It helps ensure a fairer playing field for new companies that might wish to offer a service that competes with established companies or develop new technology that uses significant bandwidth.

Without net neutrality, start-ups would face daunting costs to either compete or innovate (as would larger companies, which is why Silicon Valley firms are united in support of the concept).

With net neutrality, telcos and cable companies also cannot set up fast lanes and slow lanes for data. All traffic – for the most part – must be treated equally. So, again, newer or smaller companies are not consigned to second-class delivery and competitive disadvantage against larger rivals simply because they cannot afford to offer services to users.

And net neutrality means telcos cannot arbitrarily block services.

For consumers, all of this means ISPs and mobile networks cannot limit you to a walled garden of sites and services of their choosing, rather than those you choose to use.

Free expression

Tom Wheeler

However, because the issue has been so contentious, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter in the US. Already, telecoms companies have said they will appeal the ruling to the next and final stop, the supreme court. That means further uncertainty until probably next year, though given the current make-up of that court, it seems likely that the appeals decision would be upheld.

Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, the European Parliament passed its own set of net neutrality rules last year. But many net neutrality proponents have decried those rules as being just semi-net neutral, including, rather embarrassingly, the world wide web’s creator Tim Berners-Lee.

He pointed to one of the many apparent loopholes and weaknesses in the European rules that would allow telcos to block, not implement, net neutrality.

Congestion

The European rules are also fuzzy on whether telcos can charge more for “specialised services”. These as yet undetermined services, the argument goes, could need unexpected bandwidth or other supports, and so maybe should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

This is ridiculous, implying any range of cutting-edge new technologies could be throttled by the need for endless hearings and clarifications. It’s also a sad statement that Europe, which once led the world in telecoms services and technologies, now wants to tiptoe cautiously rather than lead in telecoms innovations.

On the flip side, potentially letting telcos provide extra supports for the specialised services they choose – perhaps due to cosy deals with large and powerful internet players – blocks competition.

And contentious “zero-rated services” – where telcos offer some services of their choosing for free or minimal cost to their customers by not including them in bandwidth charges – similarly blocks competition but remain possible under EU rules.

That is why Europe needs a campaign, similar to the successful US campaign that saw four million citizens write to the FCC to support net neutrality. And here’s the opportunity: the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec), has just issued guidelines for implementing the rules.

Those will be finalised on August 31st, but anyone can submit a view until July 18th as part of Berec’s public consultation process.

There is more information here on the Berec website: berec.europa.eu/eng.

Now’s your chance to be heard.

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