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Net neutrality: EU puts spotlight on fairness ahead of policy change

The public, as well as ISPs and others, are being invited to give opinions and evidence about the need for net neutrality legislation, following official data that suggests competition is too limited to protect consumers
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Net neutrality in the EU is back under the spotlight, with the European Commission launching a public consultation on the matter.

Regulators recently published a report into the matter giving digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes the data she was "waiting for" about internet service providers' traffic management and discrimination policies.

On Monday, the Commission invited the public to give its views and evidence about "transparency, switching and certain aspects of internet traffic management". The consultation, which closes on 15 October, will inform new policies designed to protect consumer choice.

"Today there is a lack of effective consumer choice when it comes to internet offers," Kroes said in a statement. "I will use this consultation to help prepare recommendations that will generate more real choices and end the net neutrality waiting game in Europe. Input from this consultation will help turn BEREC's [the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications] findings into practical recommendations."

The Commission does not just want the views of the public. It has also solicited the opinions of fixed and mobile ISPs and content providers, as well as consumer associations, equipment manufacturers and transit providers.

Many ISPs have expressed a desire to charge content providers such as the BBC for prioritising their traffic. By implication, this would mean that those content providers who refuse to pay up may see their services relegated to the proverbial slow lane, if capacity is limited.

ISP lobbyists have even urged the UN to put rules in place to stop such practices being outlawed.

Certain ISPs also throttle traffic such as that from Skype, if such services compete with their own offerings.

In most European countries, with the notable exception of the Netherlands, there are no rules to stop either of these things from happening. As it happens, though, ISPs have been largely unsuccessful in getting content providers to pay for prioritisation — this is most likely due to pushback from the content providers.

If there is sufficient competition between ISPs in the market, those who downgrade popular content services would risk losing their customers to rivals.

However, BEREC's report indicated that there are problems with competition. The regulatory body pointed out that many consumers are tied into contracts, making it very difficult for them to switch if their ISP starts throttling or otherwise downgrading a service.

BEUC, the European consumer organisation, also complained to Kroes last week, saying in a letter that "abuses of net neutrality may be far worse than announced".

"BEREC's findings provide clear evidence that urgent legislative action is necessary in order to ensure that all ISPs are offering open, neutral broadband services to access the Internet to all European consumers," BEUC said.

Kroes's consultation covers issues such as: the possibility for consumers to switch operators; the interconnection issues between those operators; ISPs' internet traffic management policies; and ISPs' transparency about the restrictions they place on certain types of content.

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