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EU annoys industry and activists with net neutrality proposal

GSMA, MEP and others queue up to give it a kicking

Europe’s telco ministers have finally come to an agreement on net neutrality – but it’s one that makes both digital activists and industry unhappy.

On Wednesday, a council made up of EU member states' telecoms ministers published its position on the so-called Telecoms Package and managed to alienate almost everyone with a stake.

The proposed law, if enacted in the form preferred by the council, leaves the door open for a two-tier internet, say activists. Yet, according to the council: “The draft regulation sets out to ensure that companies that provide internet access treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner.”

It sets out new rules on traffic management that ban blocking or slowing down specific content or applications. There are a number of exceptions – for example in situations where customers have requested spam blocking or to prevent cyber attacks. The draft also allows for “specialised services”.

If approved by the European Parliament, the law would apply from 30 June 2016. Getting parliamentary approval, however, may prove tricky. Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake, of the left-leaning Democraten 66 party, said the proposals were “disappointing to the point of insulting”. Schaake’s home country is the only one in the EU to have a national net neutrality law. And it’s being enforced: both KPN and Vodafone were fined in the Netherlands in December.

“The council wording is vague and this is a problem. Ambiguity and uncertainty create loopholes. We need clear principles and definitions. These are not in the council text, and I don’t think that’s an accident. The council will face a huge fight to get this wording approved,” warned Schaake.

Meanwhile, Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA, said that the reduction in scope of the proposals on net neutrality represents a missed opportunity.

ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators' association, was also unhappy with the new wording.

“The core business of our companies is to empower consumers via ubiquitous access to content, services and offers of their choice. For this reason, ETNO is in favour of an open internet and supports a harmonised, principle-based approach,” said chairman Steven Tas.

He added: “Any future regulation must recognise how networks function: We need balanced rules on traffic management as well as measures that allow the development of specialised services and innovative offers.”

In other words, we’re in favour of a net neutrality law so long as it doesn’t stop us doing what we want.

Antonios Drossos, managing partner of management consultants Rewheel, said that it was a mistake to leave out issues such as zero-rating – the practice whereby mobile operators do not charge for specified volumes of data from specific apps or used through specific services.

“Zero-rating is throttling,” Drossos told El Reg. “Zero-rating also segments the market in the same way as geo-blocking as users will be limited to home country use,” he said.

Earlier this week at Mobile World Congress, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri ridiculed the idea of a one-speed “neutral” internet, arguing that some IP packets are simply more important than others. ®

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