Since last year, Access has been working to raise the profile of net neutrality and stop network discrimination in Europe. As result of this work, today Access has launched its policy paper on “Net neutrality: Ending Network Discrimination in Europe”.
Net Neutrality is quickly becoming a hot-button global issue. In addition to being the first internet issue ever raised in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, it is one of the major topics under discussion this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) taking place right now in Bali, Indonesia.
The fight to maintain the neutrality, openness, and universality of the internet is an escalating struggle, with open fronts around the globe. In the US, network neutrality is the subject of a high profile legal case, Verizon v. FCC in which U.S. telco giant Verizon is challenging the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order on First Amendment grounds. Verizon is arguing that it has a constitutionally protected right to First Amendment freedom of speech protections that should allow it the ability to choose what is “said” over its networks — i.e., apply restrictions to content it finds less valuable. And in Brazil, the debate on the Marco Civil internet legislative framework — heralded by some as a bill of rights for the internet — has hinged on efforts by telecommunications providers to encourage politicians to eliminate key net neutrality provisions, in exchange for their support of the bill.
And of course, the debate around net neutrality has also gained significant momentum here in Brussels, as the Commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, has put forward her proposal for a Telecom Single Market Regulation. The proposed Regulation includes provisions banning discriminatory practices such blocking and throttling, but as we have pointed out in a previous analysis, none of it is sufficient to safeguard the essential open and neutral character of the internet.
All the sudden attention to the issue has underscored one thing: assessing the neutrality of networks is confusing to many, simultaneous technical and theoretical, and almost universally subject to misunderstandings. That’s why today we’re launching our paper, Net Neutrality: Ending Network Discrimination in Europe, which clarifies certain aspects of net neutrality, including the definition of network discrimination, what constitutes “reasonable” traffic management, and the impacts of network discrimination on the fundamental rights to privacy, data protection, and freedom of expression.
We’re humbled to include in this paper a forward by one of network neutrality most eminent spokespersons, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. We’re also pleased to announce that this paper has also been included in the first Annual Report of the IGF Dynamic Coalition (DC) on Net Neutrality, to be released at the IGF.
What is net neutrality and why is it important?
Network neutrality is the guiding principle that preserves the very essence of the internet, its openness and free accessibility: the qualities that have made the internet a promoter of freedom of expression, and the generator of innovative ideas and effective competition. More specifically, network neutrality prescribes that all internet traffic shall be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction, or interference regardless of its sender, recipient, type, or content.
The internet has been recognised at the U.N as a gateway through which fundamental rights can be realised, notably the freedoms of expression and association, but also the rights to access culture and education. It is of the utmost importance that the openness and neutrality of the internet are safeguarded.
However, ISPs across the world violate these principles every day by engaging in what is effectively network discrimination, often in an attempt to grant preferential treatment to their own services online to detriment of others. However incremental, this discrimination is unacceptable and it is of fundamental importance that the open and neutral internet is protected.
Access strongly believes that the only way to stop arbitrary network discrimination in Europe is to enact legislation enshrining network neutrality into E.U.-wide legislation. By passing network neutrality into law, it would prevent ISPs from discriminating traffic across the web, and promote equal and high quality access to the internet that we’ve come to depend on.
In our paper, we include a set of principles that we recommend policymakers enshrine into law, in order to ensure that the internet remains an open and non-discriminatory platform for all types of communications and content distribution.
Is the E.U. doing enough to face this problem?
When announcing her proposal for a Telecom Single Market Regulation, Commissioner Neelie Kroes promised it would include binding rules protecting the neutrality of the internet. However, although the resultant legislative text contains provisions that would prohibit ISPs to discriminate over the network, it renders these provisions meaningless by allowing content providers to enter into commercial commercial deals with ISPs to transmit their traffic as “specialised service”– in other words, enabling them to deliver their traffic first and faster.
The outcome of these agreements would be the creation a “two-tier internet,” where content providers that choose to rely on the ‘best effort principle’ and do not pay for preferential treatment will remain in the slow-lane, and therefore discriminated against. As we explain in our paper, this is in obvious contradiction with the fundamental net neutrality principle that prescribes equal treatment for data online.
A very controversial legislative proposal
Since its publication, the Regulation has been met with criticism from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. In their statement on the publication of the Regulation, the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC), expressed concerns about the fact that “the Commission has not had the opportunity to test the extent to which its proposals will deliver on its stated objectives, or the extent to which they are operationally feasible or effective, or might otherwise have unintended consequences”.
Doubts about the tight legislative timeline have been also expressed by many Members the European Parliament. As the proposed timetable comes towards the very end of this term, Members have voiced concerns that the Regulation has been proposed far too late, and the time remaining is simply inefficient to adequately work through this large piece of legislation before the elections. Despite these challenges, the Industry, Research and Energy committee (ITRE) has accepted to work on the legislation, with conservative (EPP) Parliamentarian del Castillo Vera taking the lead as rapporteur.
In order to successfully manage the network neutrality dossier, the MEPs must contend with challenging technical and commercial concerns. The laudable provisions on blocking and throttling are undermined by several loopholes that, if not properly closed, could risk worsening the situation across the continent. There’s a great deal of pressure to ensure the Regulation is properly amended in order guarantee binding legislation.
Follow the net neutrality debate in Europe!
In addition to our recently-released paper on the state of play in Brussels, you can follow our other work at our page on network discrimination in Europe, including publications, blogs, and ongoing projects that seek to map out Network Neutrality violations. See also our Q&A: Network Discrimination in Europe: Why Europe needs legislation on network neutrality.