Keep the net neutral, says Europe

Europeans' desire to keep the internet free of manipulation by network operators will be debated at the European legislators' net neutrality summit on 11 November.

Europeans' desire to keep the internet free of manipulation by network operators will be debated at the European legislators' net neutrality summit on 11 November.

The summit comes in the wake of a three-month consultation that drew 318 replies from all interested sectors. It found a near consensus on the importance of preserving the openness of the internet.

The European Commission wanted to look into issues such as internet traffic management, transparency, quality of service considerations and whether the EU's new telecom rules were adequate.

The finding suggests most believe existing legislation is adequate, but market developments need to be watched closely to prevent abuses.

Net neutrality, long a controversial issue in the US, has only recently become a hot topic in Europe. This is mainly because of the explosive growth in mobile data traffic, which has induced some mobile network operators to curb "excessive use" by "shaping traffic". Operators do this by restricting the bandwidth available to a call or by banning some content, such as Skype's phone and video calls.

The research found there is consensus that traffic management is a necessary and essential part of operating a secure and efficient network. But some respondents were worried that this could be abused to favour one service over another. There were also risks to privacy arising from deep packet inspection software, the commission said.

Several respondents were concerned that new internet business models could cause net neutrality problems in the future. They asked the commission to clarify the distinction between the "best-efforts" internet and "managed services".

The net currently works on "best efforts", whereby every bit is treated equally in terms of transmission. "Managed services" would discriminate between bits, allowing some to be prioritised for transmission, incurring an extra charge.

BEREC, the EU telecoms regulators' body, warned that discrimination would lead to anti-competitive effects, negative long-term consequences for the internet economy in terms of innovation and freedom of expression, and a lack of transparency to consumers.

Industry players were generally content with current market structures, but some content providers feared that changes such as payment for content delivery might amount to a tax on innovation.

Blocking of phone services over the internet (Voice over Internet Protocol - VoIP) and bandwidth throttling of sites worried many respondents. A few called for minimum quality-of-service requirements, but there was clear support for industry-wide standards on transparency to enable consumers to make informed choices.

Many respondents felt transparency by itself would not allay all net neutrality concerns, particularly where there are barriers to switching between internet service providers.

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