Council of Europe gets tough on net neutrality

No blocking, slowing down, degrading or discriminating of internet traffic

The Council of Europe has approved and published strong net neutrality guidelines following a meeting in Strasbourg Wednesday.

The guidelines are not legally binding but will almost certainly result in legislation that follows its lead being passed across Europe. The council is separate from the European Union, but it is influential, being made up of foreign ministers and other politicians from 47 member states.

With the exception of traffic management, network security or a court order, the council says that there should be no interference with data traffic flowing across the internet. The wording is precise, strong and unambiguous.

Possibly the most significant principle reads: "Internet users' right to receive and impart information should not be restricted by means of blocking, slowing down, degrading or discriminating Internet traffic associated with particular content, services, applications or devices, or traffic associated with services provided on the basis of exclusive arrangements or tariffs."

That in itself should prevent any effort to create a tiered internet or to allow internet service providers to charge specific companies for better or faster access to their customers – the key concern of net neutrality activists.

A section of the principles titled "Equal treatment of Internet traffic" makes the same point in different but equally broad language, and even places a definition on "network neutrality":

Internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference irrespective of the sender, receiver, content, application, service or device.

It also pre-empts and closes a possible loophole by pointing out that this principle covers all internet access, including mobile networks: "The network neutrality principle applies to all Internet access services irrespective of the infrastructure or the network used for the Internet connection and regardless of the underlying technology used to transmit signals."

And even within the exception of traffic management, the council of Europe has been clear that net neutrality will apply when it notes: "Internet traffic management measures should be non-discriminatory, transparent and maintained no longer than strictly necessary. Traffic management policies should be subject to periodic review by competent authorities within each member State."

The text also builds in the expectation that Europe will pass network neutrality laws and include the ability to enforce them. It notes that "competent authorities within each member State should monitor and report on Internet traffic management practices," and it includes a whole section on accountability.

"Internet service providers should put in place appropriate, clear, open and efficient procedures to respond within reasonable time limits to complaints from Internet users alleging breaches of the principles," the text reads. And it notes strongly that there should be "appropriate mechanisms in place to respond to network neutrality complaints."

In other words, Europe has come out very strongly for net neutrality and has actively prepared for possible efforts to bypass it. It's a done deal. ®

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