July 12, 2016 | Ed Johnson-Williams

Net neutrality in Europe: what are the issues?

BEREC, the European telecommunications regulator, is consulting on net neutrality at the moment.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers should treat all data on the Internet equally. This might sound dry but it's crucial. It means that ISPs can’t arbitrarily decide that some content, applications or services should be given priority, delivered faster, or blocked.

This has helped ensure that ISPs have to compete with each other and so helps keep broadband prices down. It also minimises the restrictions on which parts of the Internet you can access and how quickly you can access them. Finally, it helps startups to compete with big Internet firms and supports innovation in the digital economy.

The European Parliament adopted a new regulation on net neutrality in October 2015. There are good things in the regulation including the requirement for Internet providers to tell customers in contracts what the minimum, average and maximum bandwidth of any Internet access connection is.

Unfortunately, some areas of the text are not clear and are open to abuse. Because the text is unclear, the European Parliament in effect left it to BEREC - the European telecoms regulator to decide how to interpret the text.

BEREC published its draft guidelines on how it was going to interpret the net neutrality regulations and a consultation on those guidelines in June 2016. The consultation is open until 1pm on Monday 18th July (UK time). The Regulation says that BEREC will have to publish its final guidelines on Tuesday 30th August 2016.

The SavetheInternet.eu campaign is asking people to contact the BEREC consultation to call for the rules to protect ordinary Internet users and the online economy. You can take part in the consultation through SavetheInternet.eu here before Monday 18th July 1pm (UK time).

Major concerns remain in particular about three areas: specialised services, traffic management, and zero rating.

Specialised services
There are concerns that the BEREC's guidelines could allow companies to pay ISPs to become Specialised Services - whereby the Internet traffic from their service would be delivered more quickly. This is one of the headline concerns of net neutrality campaigners - that big companies could pay to join an Internet 'fast lane' to the detriment of smaller companies.

SavetheInternet.eu is calling for BEREC to ensure rules and systems are in place to guarantee that if a company is granted a specialised service that the optimisation is objectively necessary for the service to be accessed. If there is a comparable service on the open Internet, a specialised service should not be granted. SavetheInternet.eu also calls for ISPs to ensure that if the quality of Internet traffic to and from specialised services is improved, that the quality of Internet access for everybody else is not harmed.

Traffic management
ISPs can manage traffic on their networks. This means they can prioritise certain traffic and restrict the speed of others. SavetheInternet.eu's position is that traffic management should be used for a specific purpose, with the least intrusive measures possible, and for limited time when it is genuinely necessary to achieve a legitimate goal. There are also concerns that because ISPs cannot tell what services or applications their customers are using when they use encrypted connections, such data may automatically put in a “slow lane” and that this may disincentivise the use of encryption.

Zero rating
Zero rating is the commercial practice of Internet Service Providers not counting data downloaded from certain applications or services towards a customer's download cap. Although it may appear to save consumers money, the effect of it can be that the ISP becomes a gatekeeper on which services you can use or are incentivised to use. It helps big companies to protect their position in the market and harms their competition. It is common in some parts of the world but we are unable to find examples of it in the UK. The SavetheInternet.eu campaign is calling for BEREC to clearly prohibit zero rating.

There is a comprehensive list of FAQs on these issues on the SavetheInternet.eu website.

Remember you can take part in the consultation through SavetheInternet.eu here before 1pm on Monday 18th July.

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