EU Punts on Net Neutrality
The European Union this week firmly grasped something seemingly elusive to three of five members of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission: so-called network neutrality is a bust
Last Thursday the EU punted on the issue, declaring existing regulations precluded imposing more stringent rules, preferring instead to pursue a “wait-and-see” approach. The conclusion came after a four-month public comment period concluded in September.
“We have to avoid regulation which might deter investment and an efficient use of the available resources,” EU Telecommunications Commissioner Neelie Kroes told the European Parliament.
It’s certainly news when the EU chooses less government intrusion than the United States.
The net neutrality specter has been creating tremendous uncertainty in the information technology sector since proponent Julius Genachowski was named FCC chairman nearly two years ago. Earlier this year, President Obama pronounced himself “committed” to imposing network neutrality on the Internet.
The president’s comments followed the U.S. Appeals Court decision in Comcast v. FCC this past April. The court ruled Internet Service Providers such as Comcast had the right to block, limit, or charge more for bandwidth access from users of data-intensive peer-to-peer media-sharing sites, thus protecting the faster service ISPs promise other customers.
The EU adopted revisions to its existing telecommunications regulations in 2009, effective in May 2011, requiring “open and fair” access to the Internet and charging regulators with the task of establishing reasonable network management practices—not enforced equality.
“I believe that any content or application that is legal and which does not cause undue congestion or otherwise harm other users or network integrity should be fully accessible,” Kroes said, adding there should be no “must carry obligation” for ISPs.
“However,” Kroes continued, “the system as a whole”—not individual mandates on every ISP—"comprising multiple operators, should ensure that European consumers are able to easily access and distribute content, services and applications of their choice.”
Under the new rules, EU regulators may establish minimum levels of bandwidth for ISPs offering tiered services, thereby ensuring customers aren’t impelled to sign up for costlier broadband plans.
Kroes, a Dutch economist and hardly a doctrinaire free-marketer, recognizes customers deserve the final say in the products and services they wish to purchase and consume. As an example, she noted she employed Voice-over-Internet Protocol service Skype to speak with family members.
The bandwidth-heavy nature of Skype—a major net neutrality advocate for obvious reasons—has prompted some telcos, including France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom to charge an extra monthly fee ($14US for the former, $21US for the latter, according to the New York Times) for the service. That has led Skype to complain the telcos engage in “economic discrimination.”
Kroes takes a different view. “There were 21 million people using Skype alongside me when I called my family at the weekend,” she said. “That is a huge market. And I say to those people who are currently cut off from Skype: vote with your feet and leave your mobile provider.”
Imagine that: customers making up their own minds instead of the government intervening to make those decisions without any input from the people they actually affect.
“We should allow network operators and services and content providers to explore innovative business models,” Kroes said.
Out of the mouths of Europeans!
Bruce Edward Walker (email@example.com) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s Infotech & Telecom News.