Cognitive dissonance from EU over telecom reform

Plans to create a vibrant European digital economy may be hamstrung by reform of the telecommunications sector.

Communications commissioner Viviane Reding said yesterday Europe’s governments had to dismantle barriers to new communications services if Europe was to release the economic potential of its ‘digital natives’. “We must make access to digital content an easy and fair game,” she said.

But a commission opinion released last week could harden the barriers, slow the introduction of new services and open the way to internet censorship, said Monica Horten, the iptegrity blogger and intellectual property researcher. Not what Reding says she wants.
The commission has tried to harmonise and reform telecommunication law across the EU since the late 1990s. Its telecoms package, a bundle of related directives, has passed the EU’s two law-making bodies, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, except for a section known as Amendment 138/46, which deals with net neutrality. This is generally taken to mean the right of consumers to have their access to and use of the internet pass unhindered.

According to Horten, the text to be considered by the lawmakers next month creates a right for governments to implement “measures regarding end-users’ access to or use of services and applications through electronic communications networks”, whatever that means.

Horten said this should be read with Amendment 1.2a of the Universal Services and Users Rights directive, which will permit broadband providers to block or impose “conditions limiting access to and/or use of services and applications”.

“Decoded, (this) calls for the package to seal in the right of governments and broadband providers to restrict the internet,” she said.

They are already doing it. Recent incidents where ISPs disrupted users’ access to to the internet include T-Mobile blocking Skype, BT throttling peer-to-peer services, and Karoo, a small UK ISP, cutting off users. “It should now be abundantly clear what this text means,” Horten said.

Horten said the package will guarantee that users had a right to a contract, and to switch providers. “What it does not say publicly, but is being actively debated by civil servants behind the scenes, is how far the text permits governments to go with copyright enforcement measures,” she said.

She said the new text fell short of earlier language which required judicial review before broadband providers could block peer-to-peer or other services. “The user could (now) appeal to an administrative body, which is not the same thing,” she said.

A spokesman for Reding’s office said the reforms were intended to regulate the behaviour of telecommuncations companies, not consumers. He said the commission explicitly rejected an earlier French proposal for a “three strikes and you are out” or graduated response to internet absuers.

The new pan-European regulatory regime could be in force by March 2010, but some experts believe that the whole package could fail if there is no agreement on Amendment 138/46.