Net Neutrality: Dead or Alive in Europe?

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Net Neutrality: Dead or Alive in Europe?

02 August 2013

A leaked copy of the European Commission's draft regulation for a single telecoms market makes no reference to net neutrality despite the repeated promises of Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes.

Net neutrality was defined by Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, as "the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source, and that users should be able to decide what applications, services and hardware they want to use. This means that ISPs cannot, at their own choice, prioritise or slow down access to certain applications or services such as Peer to Peer (‘P2P’), etc." 

This, especially the last part, has been guaranteed by law in The Netherlands.

For the EU as a whole, Neelie Kroes has long championed and guaranteed the future of net neutrality. As recently as 9 July 2013 she said, "Blocking or throttling services isn't just unfair and annoying for users – it's a death sentence for innovators too. So I will guarantee net neutrality."

The problem for the European Digital Rights organization (EDRi) is that she isn't doing this in the draft regulation. "From a quick glance at the draft text it seems, however, that Commissioner Kroes is now attempting to carry out one of Schrödinger's most famous experiments – by putting a guarantee for net neutrality in a speech and killing it in the Regulation... is net neutrality now alive or dead?"

The reality is that net neutrality, as defined by Peter Hustinx, has never been in Neelie Kroes' plans. When championing and guaranteeing net neutrality, Kroes has been using her own definition rather than the generally accepted definition described by Hustinx. She explains this better in a blog posting on 18 July 2013.

Consumers, she wrote, "are fed up with being treated badly. Fed up with their operator retrospectively and untransparently changing their terms and conditions." This sounds like the start of another net neutrality guarantee. But she continues, "I intend to guarantee access without restriction – the first ever time such a guarantee exists across Europe. But permitting premium services does not in any way restrict that freedom."

In other words, companies with deep pockets will be able to pay for a better service than the average consumer – and this is in direct contravention of the standard definition of net neutrality: "transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source." The Access digital rights group warned in a blog posting yesterday, "This would leave those who cannot pay the required fee unable to compete as their traffic would be delivered much slower, essentially throttled in comparison."

Access is hoping that discussion and pressure from the members of the European Parliament will get genuine guarantees of the standard definition of net neutrality into the regulation before it is ultimately adopted. "As it is now, this first draft would put net neutrality under serious threat and distort rather than boost competition and innovation in Europe," says Access.

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