The European Commission has ordered an in-depth examination of the net-neutrality situation in Europe, ahead of possible legislation on the issue.
The European Commission has ordered an examination of net neutrality in Europe, in advance of possible legislation.
On Tuesday, the Commission said the fact-finding exercise — to be carried out across the EU by the regulatory group Berec — will log known cases where service providers are blocking and throttling internet traffic. It will look at areas such as VoIP, barriers to changing operator, and failure to provide transparency and sufficient quality of service.
"I will be looking particularly closely for any instances of unannounced blocking or throttling of certain types of traffic, and any misleading advertising of broadband speeds," digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a speech.
"If I am not satisfied that consumers can counteract such practices by switching providers, I will not hesitate to introduce more stringent measures. That could be in the form of more prescriptive guidance, or even legislation if it is needed," she added.
I will be looking particularly closely for any instances of unannounced blocking or throttling of certain types of traffic, and any misleading advertising of broadband speeds. – Neelie Kroes
By the end of the year, the Commission plans to produce a report based on Berec's findings, to follow on from its initial net neutrality report (PDF) published on Tuesday.
Kroes said she had heard of an operator severely degrading all its VoIP services to the point where they are hard to use. She also noted reports of a UK operator that is said to make Skype calls technically impossible in afternoons and evenings, without warning users.
Berec's fact-finding mission will verify such claims and help the commissioner publicly name operators engaging in doubtful practices, she added.
"Mark my words: if measures to enhance competition are not enough to bring internet providers to offer real consumer choice, I am ready to prohibit the blocking of lawful services or applications," Kroes said. "It's not OK for Skype and other such services to be throttled. That is anti-competitive. It's not OK to rip off consumers on connection speeds."
Kroes weighed in on the net-neutrality debate during her bid to take over as digital agenda commissioner in 2010, saying ISPs "shouldn't be allowed to limit the access to service or content out of commercial motivation, but only in cases of security issues and spamming".
Soon after, though, she described the internet as "not an inherently neutral platform". She noted that some services such as VoIP are far more time sensitive than others, such as email, and that some traffic management needs to be applied, particularly during busy periods. Such management would violate the principle of net neutrality, if the term is strictly interpreted to mean the absolute equality of all traffic; currently, the term has no fixed definition, the Commission noted.
The Commission's current stance on net neutrality lies in the middle ground mapped out by Kroes, to the disappointment of digital rights groups such as France's La Quadrature du Net.
"Mrs Kroes hides behind false free-market arguments to do nothing at all, pretending that competition and consumer law can successfully address the issue," Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for the group, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Commission's report released on Tuesday represents a public consultation carried out over the last year, along with some initial findings from Berec. Some consultation responses suggested that "charging structures would favour big players who may afford to pay for prioritisation, while new entrants would be constrained to the slow lane and hence limiting the incentives for innovation", the Commission said.
Mrs Kroes hides behind false free-market arguments to do nothing at all, pretending that competition and consumer law can successfully address the issue. – Jérémie Zimmermann, La Quadrature du Net
Meanwhile, Berec noted certain providers in the UK and other countries are throttling peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing or video streaming. It also found the "blocking or charging extra for the provision of" VoIP services in Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania.
From 25 May, new EU rules will come into force with new requirements for national telecoms regulators, who will have to push for ISPs to be transparent about their traffic management policies. Moreover, ISPs will have to give people the ability to switch operator within one working day, and give internet users the ability to "access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice".
In addition, regulators will also be able to set minimum quality-of-service levels; Ofcom told ZDNet UK on Tuesday it will produce guidance on minimum quality-of-service levels, consumer transparency and other net neutrality-related issues in the summer.
The Commission will now check that these rules "are applied in a way that ensures that these open and neutral internet principles are respected in practice", it said in its statement.