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Europe Claims it Can Preserve Open Internet with Broadband ISP Transparency

Posted: 10th Nov, 2010 By: MarkJ
europe mapThe European Commission (EC) has published the results of its own Net Neutrality consultation (i.e. the principal of treating all internet traffic as equal) - 'The open internet and net neutrality in Europe' - and found a near consensus on the importance of preserving an open internet. The report also called on broadband ISPs to adopt.. "industry-wide standards on transparency to enable consumers to make informed choices" (i.e. spelling out any usage limits or restrictions).

Europe's position is almost identical to one taken by the UK communications regulator ( Ofcom ) in its own Net Neutrality consultation. This hinted that ISPs could effectively do whatever they liked just so long as customers are told about it in a "transparent" way. Sadly most ISPs still adopt the 'transparency = small print' approach, which few ever read.

However Ofcom, which appears to be dragging its feet and has yet to publish any official consultation conclusions, later suggested to a Westminster eForum in September 2010 that it could see "real economic benefit" in a two-sided market where broadband ISPs favour any video/content (e.g. YouTube versus BBC's iPlayer) that pays them the most money (here). Europe disagrees.
Primary EC Net Neutrality Consultation Findings:

* The EU's revised telecoms framework adopted in 2009 (see MEMO/09/568) is considered to provide the basic tools for dealing with net neutrality issues. The large majority of respondents consider that the effectiveness of these EU rules should not be assessed until it has been implemented and applied at national level.

* There is consensus that traffic management is a necessary and essential part of operating a secure and efficient network. Nevertheless, some respondents have raised concerns that this tool could be abused to favour one service over another. There are also risks to privacy arising from 'packet-inspection' software.

* Several respondents are concerned about new internet business models causing net neutrality problems in the future, and have asked the Commission to provide clarity on the distinction between the "best-efforts" internet and "managed services".

* BEREC, the body of EU telecoms regulators, warned of possible problems of discrimination leading to anti-competitive effects, the potential longer-term consequences for the internet economy in terms of innovation and freedom of expression, and uncertainties for consumers due to lack of transparency.

* Industry players are generally content with current market structures, but some content providers fear that changes to pricing mechanisms – e.g. payment for content delivery – might amount to a tax on innovation.

* Blocking of phone services over the internet (i.e. Voice over Internet Protocol - VoIP) and bandwidth throttling of sites raise concerns for many respondents.
The EC agrees that existing Traffic Management measures, which restrict broadband traffic to certain services (e.g. P2P, video streaming etc.) or more generally during peak usage periods to help balance network load, are perfectly acceptable. Indeed that is fair, provided customers are given full details about how such services work (e.g. Virgin Media do this correctly).

However the real debate is not with general network management solutions but the potential for harm that could occur if ISPs start favouring content sources based on who pays them the most cash, especially if it leads to abuse (i.e. websites and services that don't pay are put on a deliberately slower connection or perhaps even blocked).

It's also worth remembering that there are literally thousands of major mobile and fixed line broadband providers around the world. If even a small portion of those started demanding cash from firms like Skype, whose profits aren't exactly vast, then that could cause serious damage.

Such a money grab would be contagious among larger operators, with all wanting a slice of the same pie, yet an utter failure to see the other side of the fence could conceivably bankrupt many popular services and make the internet experience far less rewarding. Content providers have bandwidth costs too.

Despite the EC's tone it's unlikely to go beyond a recommendation of more transparency, although privately ISPs have expressed a reluctance to adopt a standard approach to this. At present most ISPs still hide their restrictions behind vague Fair Usage Policies (FUP). Sadly some of those that do explain their limits still make it incredibly tedious to find the detail on their websites.

Transparency shouldn't mean having to trawl the depths of an ISPs support pages just to find what your service is actually capable. It must instead be open and obvious right from the start, before customers signup.
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