Internet users must be able to access whatever content they want, regardless of telecoms companies' demands that high-bandwidth publishers pay them, according to a European Commissioner ahead of a consultation on net neutrality.
Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said that whatever business model internet service providers (ISPs) choose it must not interfere with customers' access to whatever services they require from the internet.
Kroes said that the Commission would begin a consultation on the controversial issue of net neutrality before the summer.
Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic flowing through ISPs' systems should be treated the same so that customers all have equal access to all online content, regardless of the business relationship between the content producer and their ISP.
Telecoms companies have argued for a number of years that they deserve to be paid by the publishers of content that demands high bandwidth, such as video sites, because that puts a bigger strain on their networks and forces them to upgrade.
Opponents argue that the internet should be 'neutral', and that an ISP customer pays for access to the whole internet and whatever they want to find on it, not for faster access to whatever content producers pay their ISP for preferential treatment.
The net neutrality debate is far advanced in the US, where lawmakers have discussed several proposals to legislate on the issue and where telecoms companies have publicly stated their view that they should be paid by content producers for preferential access to customers.
Kroes said that while she wanted to remain open to all views and not prejudge the issue, she was committed to some basic principles of internet access.
"In 2005, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) of the United States outlined four principles to encourage broadband deployment and preserve the open and interconnected nature of the public internet," she said. "These were rights for consumers: to access lawful internet content of their choice; to run applications and services of their choice, to connect devices of their choice and to have competition. I can fully subscribe to these principles."
Kroes said that consumers must not have their basic rights undermined, and must be armed with full knowledge of whatever measures are put in place by ISPs.
"I will not support any outcome that puts into danger freedom of expression," she said. "In a complex system like the internet, it must be crystal clear what the practices of operators controlling the network mean for all users, including consumers."
"We have to adopt clear regulatory measures to foster investment in new efficient and open networks," said Kroes. "Deploying such networks and promoting infrastructure competition may be the best way to avoid bottlenecks and monopolistic gatekeepers, thereby ensuring net neutrality."
Kroes said that a consultation was needed to examine what provisions could be put in place to prevent ISPs from discriminating against traffic from sources that do not pay them or that threaten existing businesses, such as a phone call business.
"Any commercial or traffic management practice that does not follow objective and even-handed criteria, applicable to all comparable services, is potentially discriminatory in character," she said. "Discrimination against undesired competitors (for instance, those providing Voice over the Internet services) should not be allowed."
The European Union last year adopted a new legal framework governing the telecoms sector. Kroes said that this protects some of the rights that internet users should enjoy.
"National Regulatory Authorities are required to promote 'the ability of end-users to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice'," she said. "This sets a very important principle for net neutrality, as it recognises and safeguards the basic freedoms of internet users."
She said that the new regime allowed national telecoms regulators to set minimum standards for operators. "This should ensure that traffic management and possible prioritisation does not lead to degradation of content and services," said Kroes.
Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com
OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.