The group of countries with a net neutrality law is a tiny one - but one that's set to get a new member in the shape of Italy.
Last week the Transport and Telecoms Committee of the Italian Parliament's lower house has begun discussing a bill that would make it mandatory for ISPs to treat all internet traffic, regardless of its source, the same. So far the Netherlands and Slovenia are the only two European countries to have put similar laws in place.
While the bill avoids the expression 'net neutrality' (neutralità della rete in Italian), its preamble makes it clear what it hopes to achieve: establishing rules that will prevent a tiered internet.
"It is just like if a motorway manager offered lower fares or permitted higher speed limits for trucks carrying goods from suppliers with which the manger had signed a commercial agreement," the text of the bill says.
The bill is trying to avoid a scenario where some privileged bits can reach a customer faster than others, or where some economically-favored 'lanes' might be used by companies to encourage the use of certain services or content.
"We wanted to avoid framing the discussion in a way that could make it a purely ideological battle. Had we done so, our proposal would have been considered unacceptable by ISPs from the very start," Stefano Quintarelli, MP for the centrist party Scelta Civica and the bill's main sponsor, told ZDNet.
Choice of words notwithstanding, the proposed law explicitly prevents the ISPs from degrading a user's internet traffic and from making it harder to access particular legal applications or services. The only exceptions to this rule are if the provider has to reduce network congestion or if there are security reasons behind the move. However, even in such cases, traffic must only be affected for a limited amount of time.
Technically speaking, the bill doesn't completely rule out so-called 'fast lanes', but it does impose some strict limitations that should prevent ISPs from exploiting them to make a non-neutral internet the norm.
First of all, the bill states any traffic prioritization should be explicitly requested by the customer and granted by the provider under an agreement that is separate from their normal broadband contract. Additionally, the prioritization cannot be in any way linked to discounts or other deals associated with their normal broadband plan.
"The premise of the bill is that having neutral access is a right and the providers cannot strip their users of it. At the same time, users can give up that right by voluntarily asking for prioritization of sort, provided that they do it voluntarily and without having been induced to," Quintarelli said.
For example, a customer might ask that, on top of their normal (neutral) subscription, their VoIP traffic should be treated as privileged on their access loop so that they could keep having conversations even when, say, some heavy file transfer is going on. The same thing could be put in place for IPTV or cloud backup services' traffic.
"But it must be the customers asking for it because it fulfills their needs," Quintarelli said. "We are not against traffic shaping per se. We just want to avoid any traffic shaping which could harm competition in the market: the net should be neutral in that respect."
The bill also stipulates that users should have the right to be able to find and use content and services independent of the platform their devices are working on. The provision seems mostly targeted at mobile OSes and their associated app stores and, if it ever passes into law, would be disruptive to say the least. "It means my mobile operator or my phone vendor can set up its own app store but cannot prevent me from downloading and installing an app obtained elsewhere," Quintarelli added.
In its current form, the proposed law has already won the approval of some activists and experts.
"I like how the bill framed the neutrality question. It puts it in a broader context making it clear that it's an important piece, albeit not the only one, of a balanced and democratic digital ecosystem," Juan Carlos De Martin, director of Nexa Center for Internet & Society at Turin Polytechnic University, told ZDNet. "The version of net neutrality it sets forth is not absolute and rests well within the positions already expressed by the European Parliament. So I really hope it could pass."
The big question now is if and when the bill will be turned into law. According to some statistics from OpenParlament, during the last legislature just 4.4 percent of the bills in the Italian Parliament were passed. That share shrunk to one percent when it came to proposals that, such as the net neutrality bill, were not directly sponsored by the government.
So what will be the fate of the bill?
Quintarelli has no illusions about it but he is not entirely pessimistic about its fate. "Now we are waiting for the amendments and I'm confident that it could come out of the Transport and Telecoms Committee by July," he said. The issue then is when it will be scheduled to be discussed and voted on by the whole assembly. "Nobody knows [when this might happen]. But I'm confident because the current government has shown to have interest in these issues," he concluded.
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