The European Commission appears to have thrown its weight behind the principle of net neutrality, after the telecommunications commissioner told a global internet forum that the issue was "a political question to be answered by the people".
Viviane Reding was speaking to delegates on Tuesday at an Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) ministerial meeting in South Korea, on the subject of the "future of the internet economy". Because of "explosive developments" such as the dramatic proliferation of online video, she said, "some are starting to question the founding principles of openness and neutrality that have been essential for the development and tremendous innovation power of the internet".
The net neutrality debate centres on the question of whether internet service providers (ISPs) should be able to charge content providers for traffic. In the UK, this debate has manifested itself recently in the clash between the BBC and certain ISPs, who suggest the broadcaster should help pay for the infrastructure carrying its wildly popular iPlayer online video service.
'Network neutrality' refers to the idea that all content should be treated equally by those who run the internet's infrastructure and access, just as it has been run since its earliest days.
"As the internet is, like the space, the seas, the air, shared by mankind, we have to debate and decide upon such key issues at the global level and in close co-operation with the internet community of users," Reding said. "The discussion on network neutrality is not a technical question to be answered by regulatory authorities but firstly a political question to be answered by the people: the internet is theirs!"
Reding went on to define the role of policy-makers as being "to prevent powerful interests putting at risk the openness of the internet as a public space and weakening innovation on networks".
The information society and media commissioner touched on a variety of issues in her speech, such as the need to make a transition to IPv6, reinforce consumer rights and fight online piracy.
She also highlighted the importance of addressing the "security risks and governance concerns" that come along with technologies such as RFID and other sensor technologies, as well as the so-called "internet of things", in which a multitude of devices are connected to the internet.
"In particular, we must answer citizens' concerns if we are not to get a rejection of these new technologies," Reding said. "In order to stimulate the reflection on the various aspects of the [internet of things], the European Commission will launch in mid-September both a recommendation on privacy aspects of [RFID] and a consultation paper on the governance of the internet of things."