EU laws already protect the open Internet: let's enforce them now to stop the rise of the 'unternets'
There’s a sign in a street near the Skype office which reads: I can’t understand why people are afraid of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. I like that. It is actually indicative of some of the things we witness in the world of Internet access today: a desire by some to change the Internet to lots of little old-style ‘unternets’, away from the current openness where anyone can put their opinion, apps, services online, and anyone can access these, whether on fixed or mobile devices, without asking prior permission from anyone.
Last Thursday I was in Brussels at the EU Net Neutrality Summit where I explained this: the open character of the Internet is the fundamental reason and foundation behind all the benefits derived from the advent of the Internet over the past twenty years by users – citizens, society and the economy. But we see restrictions being put in place arbitrarily by some mobile operators in Europe on what end-users can do online; and what innovators can do online. These restrictions could lead us away from the open Internet towards the emergence of several separate subnets – what I think of as ‘unternets’: that is, a net with video, another net for voice over IP but not video, another net for news and email but not VoIP and gaming, an extensive Internet for those that can afford to pay a lot, or a very basic net with only a few chosen apps and websites for those that cannot pay enough — in short, a situation which would considerably diminish the economic and social utility of the Internet, and would reinforce the digital divide.
Fortunately in Europe, we already have basic legislation to protect the open Internet and net neutrality. EU telecom law revised in 2009 includes a policy principle to foster the open Internet, transparency requirements so that consumers will know what access they’re really buying, and powers for regulators to take action against those network operators that restrict the open Internet. That’s on top of a long-standing rule protecting end to end connectivity.
Last week in Brussels, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes highlighted her use (and enjoyment!) of Skype, and encouraged consumers to boycott those operators that don’t allow Skype. A lot of you might want to follow her call to action. If you can.
Unfortunately, voting with your feet is not that easily done, even in a market considered competitive like in the EU. We’re still very far from having transparent information on exactly what data access we’re buying in many countries in Europe, and people often don’t have enough choice or face too many difficulties if they want to switch. For instance,
- You can’t vote with your feet in France, where ALL mobile operators have restrictions in place on using VoIP (or peer-to-peer or newsgroups);
- What if, like millions of Europeans, you’re in an area where just one network provider is available?
- How easy is it to switch if you subscribe to a ‘bundle’ when you get TV, phone and Internet in one package?
- What if you are locked in a 24-month-long, or even 12-month-long, contract?
- Switching Internet provider is proven to be one of the biggest difficulties for consumers, even in the supposedly most competitive markets in Europe: in the UK for instance, the regulator Ofcom stated that switching rates for Internet access are lower than for any other utilities like electricity or gas (PDF), and as recently as in September 2010 found that almost half of UK consumers find switching broadband provider ‘too much hassle’.
- even if you could switch, will you do so just for a few apps, or even for the more famous ones, when switching depends on (and is complicated by) so many other factors like price and speed and volume?
- Now, even if you do switch, will you be able to find the provider that allows you to use the app you would like to use? How can you tell that your provider doesn’t throttle down the performance of your favourite app?
- Finally, how long is it going to take to improve switching? By the time it is sorted out in 10 years’ time, how many Internet start-ups and SMEs, how many online innovations will be out of business or simply not created for fear of being arbitrarily restricted? Do we want to take that risk and miss out entirely on the promise of a ‘Digital Europe’ and a truly interconnected world?
What we need now is more than a call to switch: we need the EU authorities to make sure that the telecom legislation will not be alleviated when brought into force in 2011 in the EU member states. They need to issue guidance (such as a Commission “Recommendation” as suggested by French MEP Catherine Trautman) to reaffirm the EU’s long-standing commitment to the open Internet and clarify both the criteria for what is reasonable traffic management, and how national communications regulators will be able to deploy their new powers in practice in order to prevent or stop the restrictions to the open Internet witnessed already today. A robust implementation into the various national laws around Europe must be the goal – and it must support the action needed as an immediate follow-up wherever operators offer an ‘unternet’ access that deprives consumers, society and the economy from all that the Internet has to offer.
A little plug for the European Parliament website: see some video extracts of the Summit here.