The Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC), which is composed of the heads from 27 national regulators (e.g. Ofcom in the UK), has published its preliminary findings on internet Traffic Management practices by broadband ISPs and mobile operators in Europe. The practices were found to “vary widely” between countries and providers with some exceptions, the blocking of VoIP (e.g. Skype) and P2P (BitTorrent – File Sharing) traffic is common.
It’s important to note that most internet providers employ Traffic Management / Traffic Shaping measures as a perfectly acceptable means to balance the performance of their networks (e.g. P2P speeds might be slowed at peak times so that other services can run normally). This allows the majority of customers to avoid being unfairly affected by a minority of heavy users and helps to keep prices low.
But some fear that providers might or could already be abusing their positions as gatekeepers to the internet by imposing excessive or unfair restrictions, such as against rival services. As a result both the UK and Europe have, given a lack of hard evidence, somewhat softly called for ISPs to be more transparent with their limits and to ensure that consumers still have access to all “legal content [and] service[s]” (here and here). Not everybody agrees with this stance.
Jérémie Zimmermann, Spokesperson for La Quadrature du Net, said:
“These preliminary findings prove that EU operators impose unjustifiable restrictions to Internet access on both fixed and mobile networks, such as blocking and throttling of P2P or VoIP services.
Such widespread practices clearly show that EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ [wait and see] approach on Net neutrality allows operators to violate their users’ freedom of communication and privacy. She can no longer deny the evidence and must urgently propose a EU-wide law on Net Neutrality, so as to ensure that freedoms online but also innovation and competition in the digital economy are protected.”
BEREC, which last year said that “transparency alone is probably not sufficient to achieve net neutrality” (Net Neutrality is the principal of treating all internet traffic as equal), has since gone on a data gathering exercise to help inform the debate and discover whether or not the market might require tougher rules. Data was collected from consumer groups, industry associations, some individuals and 400 different operators.
BEREC’s Preliminary Findings
The most frequently reported traffic management practices are the blocking and/or throttling of peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic, on both fixed and mobile networks, and the blocking of Voice over IP (VoIP) traffic (mostly on mobile networks, usually based on specific contract terms). When blocking/throttling is implemented in the network, it is typically done through deep packet inspection (DPI).
Beyond this, BEREC has found a very wide range of practices across Europe, and an equally wide range of implementation methods and policy justifications for them. About one quarter of respondents provide justifications for certain traffic management practices based on what could be described as “security and integrity” concerns (e.g. controlling “spam” traffic) – though some of these traffic management measures are best described as congestion management techniques.
For instance, in relation to congestion management, some operators use an “application-agnostic” approach (e.g. active buffering), while others use “application-specific” techniques (typically in order to throttle specific traffic, such as video streaming). About one third of the fixed operators manage their networks in order to offer specialised services (for the provision of facilities–based applications, e.g. telephony or TV) alongside a (public and best efforts) Internet access service.
BEREC also found a wide variety of data caps and “fair use” practices – these were not the main focus of its investigation, since (with some exceptions) in general they do not imply differentiated treatment of traffic.
It’s important to note that Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which has become somewhat demonised since Phorm associated it with internet privacy invasions and Spyware (it’s actually been around for quite awhile), also forms a fairly basic and necessary part of most Traffic Management solutions (i.e. traffic type identification). DPI can of course be repurposed for other uses but different DPI systems do different things.
Otherwise the report confirms what most people probably already knew. Many mobile operators (e.g. Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange in the UK) block VoIP and most fixed and mobile providers impose restrictions against P2P. A recent report from the Internet Telephony Services Providers’ Association (ITSPA), a UK trade body for the VoIP industry, explains the VoIP side best (here). Mobile operators are keen to defend their lucrative voice calls from cheaper IP based rivals.
Restrictions against P2P are also largely unsurprising as it is most commonly associated with heavy file downloading. Popular online games and services, such as World of Warcraft, XBox Live Multiplayer and many more use it to run their services and deploy huge updates / downloads. Sadly many people also abuse P2P for internet piracy. All of these things together put a huge strain on ISPs, which can result in a small number of users eating the majority of a provider’s bandwidth.
It should be said that DPI allows ISPs to focus their P2P blocks / throttling against specific services, as a result many providers are able to impose targeted restrictions against specific P2P traffic rather than the service as a whole (e.g. ISPs often make an exception for the primary services like XBox Live). On the other hand some would argue that if ISPs were more realistic about what they charged then heavy users would pay for what they use and thus Traffic Management would not be needed.
The European Commission (EC) is currently looking at whether or not tougher rules will be needed and BEREC’s data is likely to prove useful.