by Jon Brodkin
A European telecom law approved by a committee today is intended to prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down Web applications, but lets ISPs charge content providers for higher quality of service.
Critics say this allowance will create an Internet “fast lane” and undermine the principles of net neutrality, that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally. The European Parliament’s Industry Committee announced its vote in favor of the “Connected Continent” legislation, saying that “Internet providers should no longer be able to block or slow down Internet services provided by their competitors.”
Will ISPs block and degrade video traffic? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Under the heading, “Net neutrality,” the committee announcement said it “inserted strict rules to prevent telecoms companies from degrading or blocking Internet connections to their competitors’ services and applications. In 2012, for example, EU telecoms regulator BEREC reported that several internet providers were blocking or slowing down services like ‘Skype.'”
The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), a telco lobby group, criticizes the restrictions as too severe, saying, “This would make an effective management of the network almost unworkable.”
On the other side of the aisle, consumer advocates are worried about an exception in the legislation for “specialized services.”
“Companies would still able to offer specialized services of higher quality, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive cloud applications, provided that this does not interfere with the Internet speeds promised to other customers,” the committee announcement said. “Measures to block or slow down the Internet would be allowed only in exceptional cases, e.g., where specifically ordered by a court.”
Charging content providers “will enable telecom operators to generate additional revenue streams from OTT [over the top] actors, content providers as well as from consumers who are willing to pay for better or faster services,” a bill description states. “These revenues in turn, will enable operators to finance investments into network upgrades and expansion.”
Some European parliament members objected. Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands said the benefits of a stronger rule have been demonstrated in her home country, which passed a net neutrality law in 2012. “For Dutch companies a level playing-field is important; being the frontrunner has its disadvantages as long as not all European companies have to abide by the same rules. Without legal guarantees for net neutrality, Internet service providers were able to throttle competitors. This could push players without deep pockets, such as start-ups, hospitals or universities, out of the market. Today’s vote risks allowing just that,” she said.
The net neutrality regulation was proposed by another Dutch politician, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda. Kroes touted her proposal’s “new safeguards to ensure access to the open Internet. Today, millions of Europeans find services like Skype blocked, or their Internet access degraded: my proposal will end those discriminatory practices. Extra new ‘specialized services’ (like for IPTV, e-Health, or cloud computing) would be allowed only if they don’t cause general impairment of regular Internet access.”
The full parliament is scheduled to vote on the proposal April 3.
Consumer-friendly ban on roaming charges
In addition to net neutrality, the legislation would ban most mobile roaming charges. “A broad majority of the committee members backed plans to ban ‘roaming’ charges within the EU as of 15 December 2015,” the committee announcement said. “However, to protect telecoms companies against ‘anomalous or abusive usage of retail roaming services,’ MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] ask the European Commission to lay down guidelines for exceptional cases in which companies would be allowed to apply charges. These charges would, however, have to be below the caps laid down in current roaming rules.”
Schaake said the popularity of the roaming charge restriction helped get the legislation passed, despite its warts. “The whole package has been rushed through by Parliament because abolishing roaming costs is a nice message to campaign on,” she said.
Non-government organizations that oppose the legislation set up a website titled, Save the Internet. “Right now big companies like Microsoft and Facebook are on the same level as our Blogs or Podcasts,” the site says. “But if the definition of ‘specialized services’ isn’t fixed, these companies will be in the fast lane on the data highway, leaving start-ups and non-commercial websites like Wikipedia in the slow lane.”
Save the Internet claimed that the regulation will let ISPs “block content without any judicial oversight.” The committee’s announcement disputes that, but a Save The Internet spokesperson argued that “Although the proposal explicitly prohibits blocking and throttling, it authorizes new forms of discrimination that would have the same effect, by allowing exclusive and restrictive commercial deals between Internet access providers and service provider.”
The group also believes the rules are vaguely written and could be interpreted in harmful ways, and pointed to legislation text that says:
Within the limits of any contractually agreed data volumes or speeds for internet access services, and subject to the general quality characteristics of the service, providers of internet access services shall not restrict the freedoms provided for in paragraph 1 by blocking, slowing down, altering or degrading specific content, applications or services, or specific classes thereof, except in cases where it is necessary to apply (deletion) traffic management measures. Traffic management measures shall not be applied in such a way as to discriminate against services competing with those offered by the provider of Internet access. Traffic management measures shall be transparent, non-discriminatory, proportionate and necessary in particular to:
a) implement a court order;
b) preserve the integrity and security of the network, services provided via this network, and the end-users’ terminals;
c) prevent the transmission of unsolicited commercial communications to end-users;
d) prevent network congestion or mitigate the effects of temporary or exceptional network congestion provided that equivalent types of traffic are treated equally.
European Digital Rights Executive Director Joe McNamee, a Save The Internet member, told Ars that the line preventing discrimination “against services competing with those offered by the provider of Internet access” could mean that “traffic management can be applied against other services.” He also pointed to the “contractually agreed data volumes or speeds” section, saying, “if there is a low contractually agreed data volume and discrimination is only explicitly forbidden within any contractually agreed limits, then surely this means that outside a low or non-existing limit, the discrimination is allowed. Or does it? Is this the worst drafting ever?”
In a blog post reacting to today’s vote, Save The Internet also criticized the legislation’s “broad definition of “specialized services” that does not provide clear legal guidance to regulators and companies. ‘Specialized services’ should be limited to services provided by ISPs, such as IPTV, and should not be confused with services on the open internet, like YouTube or Spotify.”
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission issued net neutrality rules in 2010 that prevented fixed broadband providers (though not cellular carriers) from blocking and degrading traffic or charging for special access. The rules were overturned by a court decision this year.