Without appropriate laws, network operators will be able to offer cheaper, ‘tiered’ Internet connections with limited capabilities, alongside full strength Internet services. Before taking responsibility for the EU Digital Agenda, Kroes insisted that ISPs should be regulated in order to ensure that companies are not limiting access to online content “out of commercial motivation”, but critics say she has now backtracked.
Change of Heart
According to the principles of Net Neutrality that emerged in the early 2000s, ISPs and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently depending on the user, content, site, platform or application.
The European Commission had launched a second consultation on the subject in July 2012, after the first investigation found that many European telecommunication providers are already limiting some of their services. According to the Body of European Regulators of European Communications (BEREC), the most frequently reported restriction was the blocking or throttling of peer-to-peer traffic on both fixed and mobile networks.
Last year, the Netherlands became the first European country to pass Net Neutrality legislation. The principles have also been officially adopted by Chile and Japan. It was previously thought that the EC consultation could result in a similar law being introduced across Europe. However, it seems that in the last few years, Kroes had a change of heart.
“The public interest does not, in my view, preclude consumers from subscribing to more differentiated, limited internet offers, possibly for a lower price,” she wrote in the French newspaper Libération on Wednesday.
“Consumers need effective choice on the type of Internet subscription they sign up to. That means real clarity, in non-technical language. About effective speeds in normal conditions, and about any restrictions imposed on traffic – and a realistic option to switch to a “full” service, without such restrictions, offered by their own provider or another,” explained the Commissioner.
“Make no mistake: I am in favour of an open Internet and maximum choice. That must be protected. But you don’t need me, or the EU, telling you what sort of Internet services you must pay for,” she added.
What this means is that in the future, full and unrestricted access to the Internet could become the prerogative of the rich. However, Kroes’ office told TechWeekEurope that the whole Net Neutrality issue was “a storm in a tea cup”, and the European Commissioner was simply suggesting that “people should make informed choices, and know the consequences of their choices when it comes to the Internet economy”.
French Internet freedom campaigners at La Quadrature Du Net are of a different opinion. “Ms. Kroes supports the creation of a fragmented Internet, banning innovation and opening the door to unacceptable censorship,” states the organisation on its website.
“By deliberately ignoring that such [restricted] offers would change almost nothing for operators in terms of cost, but would allow them to avoid investing in the development of network capacity while restraining possibilities for citizen participation, Neelie Kroes takes into account only short-term private interests that run contrary to public interest.
“EU Commission representatives must urgently take strong measures to prevent telecom operators from controlling or censoring communications in order to protect citizens’ fundamental freedoms,” suggests the organisation.
Net Neutrality was an important subject for Aaron Swartz - Internet freedom activist, co-creator of RSS feed format and co-founder of Reddit social news platform, who tragically took his own life last Friday. Other notable supporters of this movement include the “father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf and inventor of the Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee.