Why the battle over net neutrality isn’t getting settled anytime soon

The most pressing issue at the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), currently taking place in Dubai, is not the frequently misreported ‘plot’ to take over the internet (that’s the handiwork of countries such as Russia, not the ITU, and it will almost certainly be sunk, no matter how many times they try to resurrect it). No, the really dangerous proposal, coming from the European telco body ETNO, covers the banning of net neutrality around the world.

Thankfully others, such as the European Parliament, have different ideas on the matter. With perfect timing, on Tuesday the EP passed two resolutions – one on the ‘digital single market’ and the other on a ‘digital freedom strategy in EU foreign policy’ – that both backed net neutrality. The first of those two even called for new European legislation to protect the concept.

But that’s the European Parliament, which had already voted in favour of net neutrality just over a year ago. For those unfamiliar with the EU legislative process, the EP does not propose legislation: that’s the role of the unelected European Commission.

Reality bites

So where’s the Commission at on this subject?

The last thing we heard there came after a report by a group of European telecoms regulators, BEREC, which said in May that many fixed and mobile carriers are throttling P2P services, blocking VoIP and otherwise fiddling with customers’ services in ways that would be forbidden under net neutrality.

That elicited a somewhat woolly response from digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, who said she favoured transparency about the limitations put on internet services, rather than any firm new laws. Or, as she put it, “consumers… need to know if they are getting champagne or lesser sparkling wine”.

I asked Kroes’s office if there was any response to the new European Parliament resolutions, but sadly there is not. However, if we’re in the mood for reading between the lines, there may be something to pull out of Kroes’s blog post today on the WCIT conference.

Kroes used the post to reiterate the EU’s opposition to the ‘takeover’ plans, but she also seemed to suggest something further. My emphasis:

“While we do not believe that Internet governance should be under the ambit of the ITRs [the rules being revised at the conference], this does not mean the EU wants to ‘set in stone’ all current governance practices. New trends in traffic volumes and new demand for assured quality of delivery, may lead to new solutions, but I am confident that our current European and international frameworks allow more nimble and appropriate commercial reactions than any international treaty. We also want to support developing countries to build capacity and infrastructures for the Internet.”

So, she doesn’t seem to think there’s a need to change EU law on net neutrality (sorry, Parliament), but she also doesn’t want an internationally binding treaty that prohibits the practice (sorry, ETNO).

Choice of words

With a European stance like that, I think it unlikely that ETNO will succeed in getting net neutrality banned. That said, I would dearly like to see the term – not the principle – done away with.

The term acts as a kind of straw man. Very few so-called net neutrality proponents actually want strict network neutrality. By any reasonable analysis of how things work, strict net neutrality is unworkable. All bits are not equal – it makes complete sense to prioritize VoIP traffic over email, for example, in order for it to flow in near-real-time.

What ‘net neutrality’ advocates actually want is a properly free online market, where telcos can’t block rival services such as VoIP just because they take away revenue, and where startups are not suppressed by having to pay telcos to have their traffic reach their customers. Perhaps ‘service neutrality’ might be a more accurate term, although it’s certainly less snappy. Suggestions would be welcome.

I’ll leave this with the wording in those resolutions approved by the European Parliament today:

81. Calls on the Commission to propose legislation to ensure net neutrality;

82. Points out that more competition and transparency with regard to traffic management and quality of service, as well as ease of switching, are among the minimum necessary conditions to ensure net neutrality; reiterates its support for an open internet where content and individual commercial services cannot be blocked; recalls the recent findings of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), and considers that additional measures are needed to ensure net neutrality;

83. Re-emphasises the potential challenges arising from departures from network neutrality, such as anti-competitive behaviour, blockage of innovation, restriction of freedom of expression, lack of consumer awareness and infringement of privacy, as well as the fact that lack of net neutrality hurts businesses, consumers and society as a whole.