from the confused?-you-will-be dept
There are few areas in tech policy where the waters are so muddied as those swirling around net neutrality. That's as true for the EU as it is for the US. The latest statement by the person responsible for this area in the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, does little to clarify things.
First, she addresses the issue of blocking and throttling:
Huge innovation can be found online: we must safeguard it for everyone. Currently too many Europeans find that services are blocked and throttled by their internet provider. I believe every European should have access to the full and open internet, absolutely guaranteed, without such discrimination. And so I am coming forward with new rules to bring such practices to an end once and for all.
That's clear enough. But Kroes goes on:
I agree that the Internet is an important platform for freedom of speech; and that is why I intend to guarantee access without restriction -- the first ever time such a guarantee exists across Europe. But permitting premium services does not in any way restrict that freedom. For almost any kind of product you care to name -- from postal services to the petrol in your car -- having premium products hardly diminishes freedom for users: if anything it offers them more choices. If you decide not to pay that extra premium, of course, you still deserve a good product: and under my proposals, the "best-efforts" Internet will get better.
It's not at all obvious how "premium products" will magically boost the "best-efforts" Internet. On the contrary: if companies are allowed to pay for their IP packets to be given priority over "best-efforts" services, this will result in the latter be pushed into the Internet's slow lane. Net neutrality will be dead, and innovation threatened, because deep-pocketed incumbents will be able to promote their services at the expense of underfunded startups, or non-profit projects. Moreover, telecoms companies will have a perverse incentive to make that slow lane as bad as possible, in order to "encourage" people to pay for the "premium products" that offer a decent performance.
Kroes discusses the general issue of regulation:
if you aim to protect an open network, overregulation is exactly the wrong way to go. The fact is, many innovative new services depend on fast connections over IP networks. If you want to invest in (say) new videoconferencing equipment, an IP TV, or a new cloud computing contract, you will also want to know your connection will support it. If EU laws banned such quality guarantees, we would risk effectively outlawing many of those new services too.
Those in favor of net neutrality do not argue for "over-regulation"; instead, they want one very minimal rule: that all IP packets are treated equally for a given connection. If services need fast connections, then just upgrade the speed so that all applications benefit. Maybe that is what she means -- it's really not clear from her post -- but fast connections are not normally described as "premium products", and they are already available as part of most ISPs' standard offerings. So what exactly is the EU proposing to do here?
And for those who are worried about any kind of regulation, here's what someone who knows what he's talking about here -- Tim Berners-Lee -- said on the subject back in 2006, when net neutrality was under threat in the US:
Yes, regulation to keep the Internet open is regulation. And mostly, the Internet thrives on lack of regulation. But some basic values have to be preserved. For example, the market system depends on the rule that you can't photocopy money. Democracy depends on freedom of speech. Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.
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