Report Says EU ISPs Are Happily Ignoring Net Neutrality Rules
from the ill-communication dept
A few years ago, the European Union passed some fairly decent net neutrality rules that went notably further than the FCC’s 2015 rules we just discarded here in the States. They not only prohibited ISPs from unjustly blocking, throttling, or restricting access to services the ISP may compete with, they imposed some basic protections governing zero rating — a practice ISPs here in the US have increasingly been using anti-competitively.
The problem for the EU is that after the European Union’s Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) crafted the guidelines, it was up to individual countries to interpret and enforce them, something that apparently hasn’t been going all that well. According to a new coalition of 45 academics, nonprofits, and private companies, European ISPs are routinely tap dancing around the restrictions. Under the current rules, European ISPs are allowed to inspect and shape traffic using “deep packet inspection” (DPI) tech, but only if it’s to optimize the network. They can’t utilize DPI to track user activity for money making purposes. But the group says in a letter to European authorities they’re doing so anyway in violation of the rules:
“IAS providers are increasingly using DPI technology for the purpose of traffic management and the differentiated pricing of specific applications or services (e.g. zero-rating) as part of their product design. DPI allows IAS providers to identify and distinguish traffic in their networks in order to identify traffic of specific applications or services for the purpose such as billing them differently throttling or prioritising them over other traffic.
Here in the States, ISPs routinely use deep packet inspection to track your online browsing behavior (often down to the millisecond) then monetize that data. In some instances, ISPs like AT&T have actually tried to charge consumers extra if they wanted to opt out of such surveillance. And while DPI can also be used to single out and manage specific types of traffic, actually confirming whether an ISP is using DPI for commercial tracking purposes requires some diligence on the part of regulators. It’s a diligence that’s lacking in most countries, the coalition notes:
“The nature of DPI necessitates telecom expertise as well as expertise in data protection issues. Yet, we observe a lack of cooperation between national regulatory authorities for electronic communications and regulatory authorities for data protection on this issue, both in the decisions put forward on these products as well as cooperation on joint opinions on the question in general.”
Granted, ISPs have always tried to hind behind ambiguous claims of “congestion” to justify anti-competitive behavior. At the same time, ISPs have also increasingly used such technologies to erect arbitrary barriers letting them charge users specifically by types of usage, opening the doors to ISPs that have tried to charge users more money if they’d like to actually use video, gaming, or streaming services without them being throttled by default. It’s what lets Verizon sell “unlimited” data plans that ban 4K video and throttle HD video unless you’re willing to shell out yet more money.
The coalition notes that at least 186 EU ISPs are now ignoring the net neutrality restrictions without penalty, highlighting how net neutrality rules don’t mean much if regulators aren’t willing to enforce them. And while some might argue that none of this matters, letting ISPs dictate which traffic reaches you based on how much you’re willing to pay is a fairly ugly precedent it shouldn’t be too difficult to see the longer term issues with. Especially when there’s neither healthy competition nor balanced regulatory oversight in place to rein in ISPs’ worst impulses.