Summary:

Europe’s long-awaited position on net neutrality is finally here — and it looks like business as usual, with telecom companies retaining the right to block or throttle traffic in return for making the life of consumers a little bit easier.

Neelie Kroes

Neelie KroesWith debates over net neutrality raging around the world, officials in many countries have been waiting to see what position Europe’s notoriously picky regulators would adopt. That moment has arrived with an announcement by commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is in charge of information policy in Brussels.

Her decision? To stick with the current situation, which suggests the market should be able to take care of things — most of the time, at least.

After months of consultation and lobbying from all sides, Kroes has outlined what amounts to a laissez-faire approach toward network neutrality that largely toes the line drawn by telecoms companies and Internet providers.

The result is that in just over a month, ISPs in European states will have to be transparent about the measures they take to control traffic, and be straightforward about the connection speeds when they are advertising.

But there will be no ban of traffic shaping measures, such as bandwidth throttling or the practice of limiting of certain kinds of traffic such as P2P files — actions which ISPs say are necessary to prevent network congestion, but critics suggest could be used for commercial gain. In return, Internet companies will have to meet minimum levels of service, and make it easy for customers to switch to another provider.

It’s not going to satisfy those who are concerned about a slow erosion of the principles of a neutral network. Indeed, just this week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was again banging the drum, arguing that perhaps it was time for the openness of the Internet to be enshrined in law.

But it’s not exactly a case of simply sticking with the status quo either. Although Europe’s announcement has drawn widespread support from telecom companies (which had feared a more dramatic stance) Kroes also warned them off some bad practices. She was keen to stress the report was not an open door to anti-competitive behavior, and said European officials will look into any allegations that legal services are being prohibited.

In the words of the report:

“There is broad agreement that operators should be allowed to determine their own business models and commercial arrangements. However, some parties are concerned about potential abusive traffic management, for example, for the purposes of granting preferential treatment to one service over another.”

That means there could be future action if it turns out somebody is blocking an entirely legal service because of commercial considerations, or charging some web services to ensure a higher quality connection. An investigation into blocking activity is currently underway, which could lead to some sanctions — one example Kroes gave was the decision by some mobile operators to block the use of voice over Internet services like Skype. Wired providers and wireless are, it seems, being treated in the same way.

As Kroes puts it: “If I am not satisfied, I will not hesitate to come up with more stringent measures.”

Net neutrality advocates may be disappointed, but it’s a step forward of sorts — even if just a tiny one.

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