Report on "EU Summit on The Open Internet and Net Neutrality in Europe" Brussels, 11 November 2010
An Internet slow lane of best efforts and a fast-lane of telco-surcharged managed services is being pushed by Europe's telecoms industry. Will the EU resist it and support the needs of citizens? This was a key question arising out of the EU summit on Net Neutrality.'
The event was a political follow-up to the Telecoms Package process of 2009, and the outcome of citizen lobbying. It was the final element of a consultation by the European Commission, which had an objective to ‘scrutinise the open and neutral character of the Internet' in Europe.
The packed venues at both the Commission and the Parliament, indicated the high level of current political interest in net neutrality in Europe. The Commissioner for Information Society, Neelie Kroes, made a positive commitment that "the system as a whole, comprising multiple operators, should ensure that European consumers are able to easily access and distribute content, services and applications of their choice."
However, one immediate observation from attending the summit was how the ‘Net neutrality' discussion swiftly mutated into a discussion on‘traffic management' as the might of the telco industry lined up to plead for ‘no change' and ‘no net neutrality principle'.
The telecoms industry lobbysts all came with a justification of traffic management in well-prepared corporate lines. Lobbyists for AT&T, Cisco, Cable Europe, GSMA, Nokia, Vodafone and Ericsson , like well-trained monkeys, all said how good the EU Framework is - well, it's good because it contains the very provisions which lobbied for, to enable traffic management.
In this context, ‘transparency' was the word of the day. ‘Transparency' is being appropriated by the telcos to claim that consumers have a choice when services are restricted. The paradox was evident to the astute observer.
When the UK regulator, Ofcom, spoke of the ‘scale of harm' it was obvious that we were not talking about a positive benefit, but how to contain a negative behaviour.
I felt that Cisco's presentation was particularly aggressive, arguing that consumers are just frustrated because they don't understand what they are getting. I was surprised that Virgin Media was the example used for transparency, when Virgin's non-transparent behaviour has been widely reported and discussed in forums .
Vodafone's Richard Feasey set out another telco argument, postulating that the net neutrality debate in Europe is merely a commercial one affecting operators and content providers who ‘seek sustainable models'. Clutching the lectern, he refuted the idea that the Internet could be a public infrastructure (somehow forgetting that Vodafone is a ‘public communications provider').
And signposting where Vodafone is going with traffic management, he said that the ‘development of value added services must not be at the expense of users who continue to want to use a ‘best efforts' service'.
There were a few voices for a different approach.
Ilsa Godlovitch, of ECTA (European Competitive Telecoms Association), spoke of how the history of Internet is ‘littered with the corpses of those who believed they could serve consumers by limiting services' (those with long memories will know what she means).
Jeremie Zimmerman, of the French citizens' advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, warned that giving operators a free hand to ‘traffic manage' will lead to new business models based on an artificial scarcity. He caleld for a principle of net neutrality to be enshined in EU law. Currently, there is a provision, but this provision needs stronger back up of regulatory powers.
Thomas Nordvedt of the Department for Consumer Advocacy in Norway, cautioned that there is not enough competition in Europe for the ‘transparency' concept to work properly, and thus it could work against neutrality, and not protect it.
Dr Chris Marsden, of the University of Essex, further warned that it is easy to hide discrimination. Moreover, he was wary of regulators who say ‘I have had no complaints' when what they really mean is ‘I have not listened'.
The BBC raised the issue of whether the ISPs could effectively gain editorial control in an non-neutral, traffic management Internet. His fear was that disciminatory practices by ISPs could result in an Internet ‘slow lane'. This is a crucial issue for the future of the media and it was disappointing that it did not get more focus in the debate.
Skype's Jean-Jaques Sahel stated that the mobile Internet in the EU is being crippled by blocking and throttling practices, and issued a plea that users should be able to access applications and services without fear of being arbitrarily censored.
The refreshingly no-nonsense approach of Robert Madelin, the new man heading up the civil service staff at DG Information Society, was a bright point in the day.
Mr Madelin asked BT’s lobbyist - who trotted out the Telecoms Package ‘quality of service and transparency’ line - ‘If I were a BT customer, what would I get in terms of quality of service’. Following a vague answer about customer choice, Mr Madelin remarked ‘I am always suspicious when operators say the answer is choice’.
In a signal that the Commission will consider taking action against throttling, if it gets specific information, Mr Madelin threw down the gauntlet to Skype and the BBC: “when you get an engineering report detailing throttling, would you agree to send me an email?” Both organisations declined to answer positively, saying that they would prefer cosy-agreement-making with the ISPs doing the throttling, Madelin chided them both: ‘there is no point in coming here if you can’t come and tell us when bad things are happening’ he said. He told them that if they were ‘decent corporate citizens’ they would give him sufficient detail which would enable him to take action.
What is at stake? The simple answer is whether or not the EU will positively endorse a principle of net neutrality. Will the Commission seriously listen to the requests of citizens who want open access and open distribution, and who understand the economic benefits that this brings to large and small businesses. Or will it permit the practices that were being suggested, which could give Europe a best efforts slow-lane and an exclusive managed networks club?
The cryptic response is ‘if the telco lobbyists are the monkeys, who is the organ grinder?'
More comment here from Chris Marsden
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK:England and Wales License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/ It may be used for non-commercial purposes only, and the author's name should be attributed. The correct attribution for this article is: Monica Horten (2010) Will the EU permit a slow-lane Internet?t , http://www.iptegrity.com 12 November 2010.