A few days ago, Luxembourg’s parliament adopted a motion calling for net neutrality to be enshrined in national law, and for the Government to defend and promote the respect of the neutrality of the Internet at European level. With this, the Grand Duchy will join a growing number of European countries that have specific protections of net neutrality in place, either in the form of (co-/) regulatory guidelines such as in Norway or France, or in legislation such as in the Netherlands, Finland or Slovenia.
The issue of net neutrality – referred to more precisely by the European Commission as ‘the open character of the Internet’ – is central to the dynamism of the ICT ecosystem, today and tomorrow.
There is a bright future ahead for the Internet. Ever-more creative and user-friendly content, applications, and services keep appearing, stimulating consumer, business and government demand for fast, reliable and capacious Internet access, which in turn ensures sustainable return on investment and opens up exciting avenues for innovation for network operators (just think about the potential of the cloud!). These are great opportunities for all of us, starting with the user / citizen.
To get to the stage where innovations and successful businesses can flourish, while delivering ever more choice and benefits to users and the wider society and economy, we need robust foundations or ‘rules of the road’ which ensure that Internet innovation is maximized, and protected from undue and unfair barriers.
A joint investigation conducted by BEREC and the EC which was made public in May 2012 confirmed however that such barriers exist. There are widespread and unjustified restrictions to the use of entire categories of services and apps on the Internet, affecting the likes of Skype, and up to 39% of all mobile users across the EU (in the case of Voice over IP) for example. There are reports that similar barriers may now be spreading to other areas such as cloud and online video, stimulating fresh debate in the German Bundestag, for instance.
The European Commission is actively working to address this problem. A Recommendation on Net Neutrality is being prepared by DG CNECT, and EC Vice-President Neelie Kroes has vowed to ‘safeguard net neutrality’ as part of her new and ambitious Single Telecom Market plans. This momentum is welcome, as the lack of regulatory clarity so far is detrimental to all in the value chain:
Internet content, applications and services companies have no visibility on where and how their online products will be accessible. It is particularly stifling for SMEs who have no idea whether the apps they develop will be accessible by end users, making it very difficult to secure appropriate funding.
Telecom operators who have no intention of behaving unfairly, but need to be able to innovate and manage their network for technical reasons, lack the clarity to be able to deploy traffic management tools in a way that is seen as acceptable and commercially non-discriminatory.
European users and citizens have a right to access the (lawful) content, services and applications of their choice. Citizens’ fundamental rights to receive and impart information and ideas, to assemble and associate should all apply equally online as offline. Today, this is not the case in practice.
We are convinced that there is a balanced and future-looking way of ensuring that telecom operators can continue to thrive, that content and application providers are free to continue to dazzle us with their online innovations, and that users reap all the benefits of this virtuous cycle. We can get there, without the addition of a lot of new ‘red tape’. Three key elements should form these ‘rules of the road’ for an open Internet, which will reinforce the dynamism of the Internet in Europe:
1. There should be no discrimination between Internet traffic flows by network operators that is anticompetitive, creates barriers to innovation, or harms end-users.
2. Unrestricted Internet access should be the norm and fully available, with the only exception allowed being reasonable traffic management. Traffic management practices would be deemed reasonable if they can be shown to comply with the general criteria of relevance, proportionality, efficiency, non-discrimination between parties and transparency, and in accordance with existing laws, including inter alia, privacy and data protection.
3. Network operators should, however, be allowed to offer managed services, in addition to open Internet access services, provided that the development of such offerings is not to the detriment of Internet access, or its performance, affordability, or quality.
Once these foundations are firmly in place across Europe, thereby fostering innovation, competition and consumer choice, we will have a solid basis for Europe to grow and affirm itself as a world-leading Internet economy and society.