The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec) - an EU organisation that represents all member states’ communications regulators - has issued guidelines on how telecoms providers should manage the services they provide.
The guidelines have been praised by digital rights activists, as they clamp down on net neutrality loopholes that were heavily criticised when a previous law on the matter was published.
Net neutrality is seen as one of the core principles of maintaining an open internet, whereby all traffic and data is treated equally, regardless of who it is provided by. Up until now, in theory, telecoms providers could favour certain popular services over others, if those content providers were willing to pay for superior access to the network.
For example, certain social networks or streaming services with enough clout could strike deals with network providers to ensure that their services would not be diminished in a high traffic environment.
Berec has said that only under special circumstances should a telecoms company favour one service over another - for example for health services or for high quality voice calling on mobile networks.
The move has been hailed by the executive director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), Joe McNamee, who praised Berec for not buckling to industry pressure to reserve commercial practices and for protecting a free and open internet. He said:
Europe is now a global standard-setter in the defence of the open, competitive and neutral internet. We congratulate BEREC on its diligent work, its expertise and its refusal to bend to the unreasonable pressure placed on it by the big telecoms lobby.
The document published this week follows a six week public consultation, which received over half a million responses in support of strong net neutrality laws. EDRi said that civil society now has to “stay vigilant” to ensure the enforcement of these new rules and praised the EU for cementing a “global trend towards strong net neutrality protection”.
Berec argues that the regulation published aims to establish common rules to safeguard equal and non-discriminatory treatment of traffic in the provision of internet access services. It aims, Berec says, to protect end users and simultaneously guarantee the continued functioning of the internet ecosystem.
Similar rules have been put in place in the US, India and Latin America.
The Berec guidelines state:
The internet has developed over the past decades as an open platform for innovation with low access barriers for end-users, providers of content, applications and services and providers of internet access services. The existing regulatory framework aims to promote the ability of end-users to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice.
However, a significant number of end-users are affected by traffic management practices which block or slow down specific applications or services. Those tendencies require common rules at the Union level to ensure the openness of the internet and to avoid fragmentation of the internal market resulting from measures adopted by individual Member States.
When providing internet access services, providers of those services should treat all traffic equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender or receiver, content, application or service, or terminal equipment.
Any traffic management practices which go beyond such reasonable traffic management measures, by blocking, slowing down, altering, restricting, interfering with, degrading or discriminating between specific content, applications or services, or specific categories of content, applications or services, should be prohibited, subject to the justified and defined exceptions laid down in this Regulation. Those exceptions should be subject to strict interpretation and to proportionality requirements.
The guidelines will also have an impact on the delivery of ‘zero rated services’, which have become a topic of debate in recent months - thanks largely to the work of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg and co have been working, and striking deals, to provide a limited, or basic, set of internet services for those that can’t afford them. For example, the project would see certain regions receive Facebook, BBC new and Wikipedia for free, but limit users to these free services.
These zero rated applications have received a backlash in countries such as India, as they are perceived to go against the principles of net neutrality. Critics argue that they create a walled garden, whereby users of them could conflate these free services with the open internet. Equally, in theory, it creates a two tiered internet - one where users pay for full access, and one where free, but limited, services are provided.
Whilst this hasn’t yet become much of an issue in Europe - as much of the focus has by the likes of Zuckerberg has been placed on developing nations - the latest guidelines do seem to offer protection against this ‘free tier’.
The rules announced this week have received high praise from digital activists.
Net neutrality activist, Thomas Lohninger from SaveTheInternet.eu, said:
Based on a preliminary reading of the text, this is a triumph for the European digital rights movement. After a very long battle, and with the support of half a million people, the principles that make the internet an open platform for change, freedom and prosperity are upheld in the EU.
Whilst Estelle Massé, Senior Policy Analyst at Access Now, added:
BEREC has completed the work started by the EU legislators and delivered what the public have been asking repeatedly for the past three years: robust and clear protection for net neutrality. The final guidelines are a true testament to BEREC’s hard work.
An important - and long awaited - document from Berec. This has been rumbling on since September 2013, when the European Commission’s first legislation on the issue was deemed to be “disastrous” for the principles of net neutrality. However, these are only guidelines for member states, which now have to enforce them.
Equally, given that Brexit is on the cards, it will be interesting to see if the UK falls into line with the net neutrality principles going forward. Or whether it will buckle to the pressure of industry, which is keen to monetise internet networks any way it can.