EU Decides Against Stricter Net Neutrality Rules

The European Commission has decided against introducing legislation to protect net neutrality, saying media scrutiny and giving consumers enough information about their internet service provider will be sufficient to protect an “open and neutral” internet.

Legislation to prevent telecoms companies from introducing a tiered internet, with some content arriving faster than others, has been ruled out.

In a long-awaited report on its approach to net neutrality, the EU executive on Tuesday said “traffic management”, or the prioritising of some packets of information over others, “is necessary to ensure the smooth flow of internet traffic, particularly at times when networks become congested”.

Internet service providers have long argued they should be left alone to co-ordinate the flow of data through their networks, a position the commission has decided to endorse.

“There is broad agreement that operators should be allowed to determine their own business models and commercial arrangements,” the report continues.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes, head of the EU’s Digital Agenda department, said she will continue to monitor the sector for instances of ISPs blocking or throttling access to certain services, especially voice-over-internet-protocol offerings such as Skype.

Brussels admits there have been some instances of unequal treatment of data by certain operators, including throttling of peer-to-peer filesharing or video-streaming in the UK and five other EU states, and blocking or charging extra for VOIP services in six other countries.

But these problems were usually fixed as a result of bad press or via action by regulators, the report concludes: “Many of these issues were solved voluntarily, often through intervention by the [national regulators] or pressure created by adverse media coverage.”

However, the commission has asked BEREC, the European electronic communications regulatory group, to investigate the extent of the issue. If by the end of the year Brussels finds that there are persistent problems of blocking, the commission will take additional action.

“If I am not satisfied, I will not hesitate to come up with more stringent measures,” said Kroes. These measures could include “guidance” or a law to prohibit blocking of services.

But a “horizontal” bill, akin to that introduced by Chile last year, which goes beyond the problem of blocking and prevents any kind of tiered internet at all, the commission believes is unnecessary.

Last June, Chile became the first jurisdiction in the world to pass net neutrality legislation, forcing ISPs to “ensure access to all types of content, services or applications available on the network and offer a service that does not distinguish content, applications or services”.

According to EU digital agenda spokesman Jonathan Todd, this goes too far: “The EU telecoms market is already healthily competitive. If an online service provider is confronted with extra charges for their content, they’ll just tell the ISP to take a hike. It’s a false debate.”

Digital rights advocates for their part accused Brussels of succumbing to lobbying from the telecoms industry, saying consumers are not as able to “vote with their feet” as the commission believes.

“This simplistic spin does not stand the test of reality. In practice, millions of users can only chose one operator to connect to the internet, either because of geographical or commercial constraints,” said La Quadrature du Net, a France-based online civil liberties group.

“Ms Kroes is hiding behind false free-market arguments to do nothing at all,” added Jérémie Zimmermann, a spokesman for the organisation. He said that infringements of net neutrality are not an abstraction but already common to most mobile internet provision.

“In most EU member states, mobile phone operators agree on engaging in the very same discrimination in their so-called ‘mobile internet’ offers. These operators simply do not offer access to the universal platform of communications we call ‘the internet’.”

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.