The European Commission will ask the public for their thoughts on net neutrality this spring, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has announced.
Speaking at a conference held by French telecoms regulator Arcep on Tuesday, Kroes said the internet was "not an inherently neutral platform". This means that European regulators have to make choices about whether to allow ISPs to prioritise certain types of online traffic, she added.
In order for the Commission to draw up a policy on net neutrality, Kroes told the audience that she plans "to launch a public consultation before the summer".
Net neutrality broadly refers to the enforced equality of different types of internet traffic. Those in favour want all types treated the same by ISPs, so no type of traffic has its performance deliberately degraded. However, opponents of net neutrality want ISPs to be able to charge users premium rates for delivering services such as video at full quality, or to charge content providers such as the BBC for carrying their high-bandwidth video content.
"Net neutrality is a subject that stirs emotions," Kroes said, adding that the debate had seen people voice fears over government censorship and the increasing commercialisation of the web.
The commissioner noted, however, that many of the ISPs she had met wanted to be able to "charge a form of rent to content providers for what they see as extensive use of their networks". They also wanted to offer differentiated levels of service to their customers, she said.
"All parties are passionate in their view," Kroes said. "This does not mean there are clear answers, but it suggests that each party knows that the internet is not an inherently neutral platform; that there are choices to be made."
Many technology policy issues were closely linked with the outcome of the net neutrality debate, including high-speed internet access, quality, affordability, innovation, competition and "more generally, our democracy", the commissioner pointed out.
The net neutrality debate is less advanced in Europe than it is elsewhere, Kroes said, because European regulations enforce a high level of competition between ISPs.
The commissioner said she is supportive of most of the net neutrality principles offered by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in the US. In addition, she fully subscribes to the FCC's four tenets of consumer rights, as set out in 2005: for consumers to be able to access lawful internet content of their choice; to run applications and services of their choice; to connect devices of their choice; and to have competing services available to them.
However, Kroes was more circumspect about the FCC's more recent proposal that non-discrimination between traffic types be enforced.
"Some are interpreting the non-discrimination principle as essentially preventing telecom operators from seeking commercial payments or agreements with content providers which deliver their highly capacity-consuming services through broadband networks and require a certain level of service for their transmission to be effective," Kroes said.
"That prospect raises a number of delicate and complex issues. These issues must be very carefully assessed before the EU gives any possible regulatory response," she continued.
In contrast, Kroes was fully supportive of the FCC's other recent proposal, which is for carriers to be transparent about their traffic management policies.
Whatever the outcome of the European consultation, Kroes said any policy she draws up will respect principles such as freedom of expression, investment in efficient and open networks, fair competition and support for innovation.
The Commission's net neutrality consultation is likely to coincide with a consultation on the same issue conducted by Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator. When the Ofcom consultation was announced in March, the regulatory body's chief Ed Richards said it was unlikely the outcome would call for "a highly interventionist net neutrality policy".
Similarly, Kroes said on Tuesday that Europe should "avoid taking unnecessary measures which may hinder new efficient business models from emerging".