Net neutrality activists claim victory in Europe

BEREC final guidelines land on the side of civil society

Net neutrality activists are claiming victory following the publication of final guidelines by European regulators.

The Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications, or BEREC, has published 45 pages of rules [PDF] that will act as the baseline for national regulators.

They impose strict neutrality regulations on telecom companies, removing the ability to prioritize traffic. They also come down against the edge-case of "zero rating," where companies offer access to certain services for free.

Taken overall, the guidelines represent the strongest global rules focused on creating a neutral internet, and should ensure that companies providing access to the internet are not able to interfere with data flows in ways to increase revenue.

Although the telco industry is not happy about having potential revenue streams cut off, the thorough policy-making job carried out by BEREC has made it difficult for them to complain.

Where US companies were able to weaken rules by pointing to numerous exceptions, BEREC's six-week consultation elicited nearly half a million responses and succeeded in eking out what those exceptions actually are. For example, high-quality voice calls (VoLTE), television services (IPTV) and remote surgeries are all considered "specialized services" and so sit outside the main rules.

Possible future "specialized services" are defined as those that should be "logically separated from internet access services."

Zero rating

And while "zero rating" remains an undecided issue in many countries, the BEREC guidelines prohibit it. Reflecting industry concerns however, in the case where a telcom company is providing access to its own content, regulators will look at it on a case-by-case basis.

An example of allowable zero rating is the ability of users to access their ISP's customer service, even after they have reached their data cap, in order to purchase more data. But access to other companies' content – such as Facebook or news sites – under those circumstances would be banned, killing commercial possibilities.

The other main concern with imposing true net neutrality is over traffic and network management. Elsewhere in the world, this has been used to introduce broad wording that some fear will be used to bypass the rules. In the BEREC guidelines, it can only be used as an argument against net neutrality "under limited circumstances." Any traffic management that blocks, interferes with, or slows down services is banned.

Overall, the changes between the draft and the final version largely reflect the arguments made by net neutrality groups, in that they remove ambiguity and add in specifics. A range of what look like good, workable definitions should also help in resolving future issues.

In another sign that the policy-making body knew it was in the spotlight and had to do a solid job, BEREC produced its own presentation summary [PDF] of the changes and what they meant.

Reaction

Net neutrality advocates celebrated the results. "Europe is now a global standard-setter in the defense of the open, competitive and neutral internet," said Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights (EDRi).

The World Wide Web Foundation's CEO Anne Jellema said: "At first glance, these guidelines seem to deliver what half a million citizens in Europe demanded throughout the consultation process – an open Internet that can deliver opportunity for all."

Julia Reda of the Pirate Party wrote a gleeful post in which she exclaimed the rules "a victory for civil society, whose relentless involvement secured the principles of a free and open internet in Europe."

Industry was less excited.

"Let's make sure the implementation of net neutrality rules does not hamper new applications and services," said Lise Fuhr, director general of telecom lobbying group ETNO.

And Doug Brake, an analyst at US-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) said: "The guidelines are unnecessarily prescriptive, setting detailed restrictions ... that will likely diminish pro-competitive, pro-consumer broadband-based offerings." ®


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