The European Parliament has called for the internet to be kept open and neutral, urging ISPs to avoid departing from the principles of net neutrality.
In a vote on Thursday, MEPs backed a motion that stressed how important the open nature of the internet had been to its development, and spelled out the dangers of letting ISPs block or downgrade traffic for anti-competitive purposes.
The resolution called on the European Commission to "ensure that internet service providers do not block, discriminate against, impair or degrade the ability of any person to use a service to access, use, send, post, receive or offer any content, application or service of their choice, irrespective of source or target".
"Reasonable data traffic management is required and very useful to prevent network congestion and the smooth running of applications and services," Herbert Reul, chair of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee, said in a statement. "Nonetheless, it is clearly understood that traffic management practices must not be used for anti-competitive purposes."
The Commission is currently on a fact-finding expedition with regards to net neutrality, having tasked the regulator group Berec with finding out what abuses of net neutrality are taking place. Evidence gathered would include cases of, for example, operators blocking or throttling VoIP applications because they compete with the operators' voice business.
Berec's report would no doubt look into other aspects of net neutrality as well, such as ISPs' desire to charge content providers such as the BBC and YouTube for carrying their services at a reasonable quality level.
Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has made it very clear that she wants any net neutrality regulation to be applied consistently across the EU, and she has lambasted the Dutch for bringing in such regulations on their own steam.
The European Parliament's motion backed Kroes's approach, urging the Commission to come up with consistent, EU-wide guidelines to enforce net neutrality rules.
The MEPs called on Kroes to assess, within six months of Berec's report being published, "whether further regulation is needed to ensure freedom of expression, freedom of access of information, freedom of choice for consumers and media pluralism". Berec's report is due by the end of this year.
The French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net has long been campaigning for net neutrality. It views the motion's acceptance of anti-congestion traffic management as a "loophole", but nonetheless welcomed the resolution as a whole.
According to La Quad, the next step is for the European Parliament's political statement this week to translate into hard law from the Commission.
"EU telecoms operators already violate net neutrality in large numbers by illegitimately restricting Internet access," spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann said in a statement. "If Commissioner Neelie Kroes is really committed to defending freedom of expression, as she has claimed in the past, she must act accordingly by imposing net neutrality by law, as was done in the Netherlands."
Cloud communications specialist Interoute was less effusive about net neutrality, saying in a statement on Thursday that a very strict interpretation of the principle could hamper private investment.
"Different traffic needs different rules, for example video must have priority over data, which in essence creates a multi-speed internet," Interoute director Lee Myall said. "Added to this is the need for investment to ensure the network infrastructure is fit to carry the huge increase in traffic that consumers are demanding. The risk now is that imposing net neutrality will restrict the internet investment and ultimately affect quality."