Which neutrality do you prefer?

Which neutrality do you prefer? 1)Copyright by EFF-Graphics under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Aiming to allow everyone to communicate with anybody globally, the net neutrality principle establishes that all content providers should have equal access on networks. In this context, it enables people to access and impart information and it provides entrepreneurs with the proper platform to invest and develop new businesses models. Therefore, non-discrimination commitments are required from Internet Services Providers regarding users, contents, devices or communications.

But it is easier said than done… In fact, it appears that net neutrality is not a straight forward principle, thus allowing different interpretations. Perhaps the very own nature of the concept can – at least partially – explain the difficulty of the institutional and political debates surrounding the legislative reforms in the telecommunications sector both in the EU and in the USA.

On the EU side, the negotiations regarding the draft regulation laying down measures concerning the European single market for electronic communications and to achieve a Connected Continent (the TSM proposal) have been quite tumultuous.

As you might well remember, it all began with the text proposed by the European Commission, in 2013, which was claimed to fully implement the principle of net neutrality, while it actually stripped it of all real meaning. In fact, it foresaw an almost unlimited right of Internet Services Providers (hereafter ISPs) to manage Internet traffic.

Afterwards, there were the debates within the European Parliament, which first reading ended successfully last April, resulting in a clear and strict interpretation of the net neutrality principle and a proper framework for ‘specialised services’. Indeed, according to the text, telecommunications operators would be allowed to develop access offers with an optimised quality of service for specific applications, which wouldn’t be able to not run properly on the so-called ‘best-effort Internet’.2)A Best Effort Internet refers to the model of the Internet that does not differentiate between ‘levels’ of content providers. All web authors, large and small, enjoy the same ability to produce content or services that can, via the Internet reach an audience / customer base.

Currently, the debates are being held within the Council of the European Union which, along the European Parliament, is the EU co-legislator. However, the meeting of the EU Member States’ telecommunications ministers, held in Luxembourg, past June, clearly demonstrated the existing major divisions among Member States.

Considering the most recent proposal of the Italian Presidency (see here and here), it was quite evident that Member States were heading to a looser and weaker approach to net neutrality rules. The proposal consisted in a ‘principles-based approach’ in order not to inhibit innovation and to avoid having an obsolete regulation in the future.

However, the proposal did not address the principle of net neutrality but rather its opposite, as it set principles to traffic management:

Clear principles for traffic management in general, as well as the obligation to maintain sufficient network capacity for the internet access service regardless of other services also delivered over the same access.

In fact, the very important definitions of net neutrality and specialised services were not included in the text.

According to the document of the Italian Presidency, “instead of a definition of net neutrality there could be a reference to the objective of net neutrality, e.g. in an explanatory recital, which would resolve the concerns that the definition might be at variance with the specific provisions.” However, clear provisions are required in order to ensure its full enforcement.

Specialised services, which refer to the types of content that operators could prioritise over others, despite not being regulated, were not prohibited. Thus said, if they were not foreseen in the text, the principle of non-discrimination should at least have been clearly stated instead. It was not the case.

In its place, it was foreseen that ISPs will be able to apply traffic management measures as long as they were transparent, proportionate and not anti-competitive. Measures “that block, slow down, alter, degrade or discriminate against specific content, applications or services, or specific classes thereof” could be applied under certain circumstances, such as to “prevent the transmission of unsolicited communications”; to prevent “temporary congestion control”; or to meet their “obligations under a contract with an end-user to deliver a service requiring a specific level of quality to that end-user”.

Moreover, the proposal did not contain any reference to the obligation of Member States regarding the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression, which must be ensured at both the end-user and the content provider.

Thus said, this text raised some confusions and concerns. To start with, regarding unsolicited communications, it must be noted that an e-mail service is not an internet access service. Moreover, it should have been clarified that the prevention of temporary congestion should be an exception and not be established ‘by default’. Furthermore, the concept of a “contract with an end-user to deliver a service requiring a specific level of quality to that end-use” is not fully compatible with the ‘best effort’ Internet concept.

Last but not the least; the text lacked a clear non-discrimination principle for Internet access providers. For instance, the text did not refer the discrimination based on pricing which would lead to a result where big telecommunications companies would be able to pay for preferential treatment for their services or to have their services accessible for free, while others, with less financial capacity, would end up being excluded due to throttling of their services.

As a result, ISPs would turn themselves into the gatekeepers of a market of customers which would only be accessible for those companies willing to pay accordingly. In fact, this is a crucial point because consumers will invariably prefer the websites or services made available for free.

The direct result of such a text was that telecoms operators would be able to discriminate between different users, their communications or the content accessed. Internet access providers, and not users, would therefore decide what applications and content could be freely used.

In an unfortunate coincidence, Günther Oettinger, the already well-know Digital Commissioner for its ‘inside the box’ way of thinking, published his first post on his blog, arguing that the full coverage of internet access in rural zones would be finally possible if the telecommunications operators would be allowed “to reap the benefit of their investments”.

Moreover, a letter sent from Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans to the other commissioners is being interpreted as suggesting that the European Commission might change direction regarding its initial proposal.

In this context, the main challenge is to conciliate the open internet as a instrument for the democratic expression, which promotes informed citizenship and plurality of opinions, with the network operators own interests in managing their networks, namely through specialized services. ISPs should be entitled to manage traffic – namely offering customers internet access packages with different speeds and volumes – but the traffic should neither be prioritized nor discriminated based on the content, services, applications, or devices used.

More recently, the Italian Presidency appears to have distanced itself from its own proposals, alleging that

none of the compromise drafts, which had been developed at a technical level, has gathered enough consensus. Such drafts (…) are significantly different from the positions of the single Member States, including Italy, that has always chosen to act as a neutral mediator under the Presidency rather than imposing its own point of view.

This is just the consequence of the strong divergences which oppose EU Member States, which is expected to be resolved at a political level.

In this context, the recent resolution adopted by the European Parliament does not come as a surprise as it stresses that

all internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, irrespective of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.

In these dark times for net neutrality, one can only hope for the right balance between net neutrality and reasonable traffic management to be found.

And as Christmas is getting closer, one can also wish for the EU and the USA to ultimately adopt compatible rules on guaranteeing an open internet. As announced recently, Barack Obama is taking strong positions in favour of Net Neutrality and is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt rules to prevent ISPs from blocking and slowing down content.

References   [ + ]

1. Copyright by EFF-Graphics under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
2. A Best Effort Internet refers to the model of the Internet that does not differentiate between ‘levels’ of content providers. All web authors, large and small, enjoy the same ability to produce content or services that can, via the Internet reach an audience / customer base.