In between the two “Dutch extremes”
Europe is a leader when it comes to debating about net neutrality and proposing ways ahead: the Norwegian model has become famous, followed by similar views in Sweden and other countries, and the (relatively) mild position of the European Commission, when confronted by the proposal of ETNO (the European association of telecom operators) for the December WCIT meeting – which met with a chilling response by BEREC (the body of European regulators for electronic communications).
In addition, two confronting regulatory positions have been pushed by the “Dutch parties”: the Netherlands has built in the protection of net neutrality in its law (and was recently followed by Slovenia), while the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Ms. Neelie Kroes, has now positioned the EU more towards a market-driven and choice-based approach.
In my previous post on this topic I have elaborated on the official Dutch approach and other existing options like the US and EU positions and Norwegian guidelines. Here, I provide with my personal views on a somewhat changed position of the other “Dutch” - Ms. Neelie Kroes - expressed in her recent interview for French Libération and conveyed by ZDNet in their article.
Unlike her previous positions on net neutrality, which were rather balanced and adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach , Ms. Kroes has now taken a stand that the carriers “should be able to impose restrictions on internet traffic they deliver over their networks”. She seconds one of the commonly heard arguments used against the ex-ante regulatory approach: the competitive market and freedom of choice of a carrier/ISP is sufficient.
Informed choice is hard to make
“On net neutrality, consumers need effective choice on the type of internet subscription they sign up to”
Choice is, no dispute, a must. While in reality it is not so easy to change an ISP, we can believe it is just a matter of time when this will be possible with a single mouse click (though it’s likely, this time can be measured in years rather than in months).
But choice itself is not enough - instead, what is needed is an ability and awareness by every single user to make an informed choice. As I elaborated in one of my previous posts, it has become increasingly hard to make an informed choice on digital services: one needs awareness of rights and choices, a high level of literacy, a solid understanding of technology, law, policy and even economics, and - above all - time to explore all the options.
The pace of the development of new technologies brings more and more different choices. To be able to make an informed and meaningful choice one firstly needs to have a chance to sense each of them – to try and think. Even with a “full Internet” option available, the options of limited Internet packages are likely to be most popular due to lowest prices – therefore a limited number of people would really be able to sense the open Internet and be aware of all the diversity that is really out there besides Google, Skype, Facebook or Twitter. Not least, it is predominantly the parents’ budget that will determine what package the youngest ones - those expected to drive the trends and push for innovations in future - will have when they first meet the Internet.
The choice of an ISP or a package becomes hard even from the practical point of view: a growing number of users is using the Internet through apps on mobile devices. With new free apps emerging every day, and each one of us installing new apps on our mobile devices every few days at least, it is hard to imagine how one would be able to choose and change the convenient service package accordingly.
Obsolete payment models
“You shouldn't have to subsidise someone else's video appetite if you just want to check a few emails or Skype your grandchildren”
I could not agree more that no one should subsidise the appetites of others. We should pay as much as we eat, no more no less. With current flat rate models, however, we all pay equally for all we can eat - but some can eat more, much more than others. The flat rate model used to be convenient in the days when no heavy-load applications (like HD video streaming or P2P) existed and when ordinary user habits were limited to emails. This payment model is obsolete and inefficient today, and is the one allowing these unfair subsidies.
The payment model and ISP offers should not have anything to do with a type of application of service we use, but only with the loads of traffic we download or upload. A granny should thus pay for the amount of traffic she produced, regardless of whether she decided to run Skype, Google Hangout or an anonymous emerging video service possibly cheaper and better than those famous ones.
Quo Vadis Europa?
In spite of all the heated discussions, Europe still does not have a common view over the regulatory approach for net neutrality. The opponents of the “hard law” approach claim it could stifle investments by the telecom sector - through it seems no such evidence is yet available in the Netherlands in the second year after their new law. The opponents of the market-driven approach with no regulation, on the other hand, request firm protection of public interests.
Question remains if “hard law” is really needed on the EU level, or a “soft law” approach would be sufficient, such as the Norwegian “cooperative agreement” or similar guidelines which puts “carrots and sticks” in the hands of regulators (and legislators ultimately, if really needed). Besides, it is important to estimate to what extent the public interests related to net neutrality are already protected by other existing pieces of EU law (on competition, privacy, rights and freedoms, etc).
It is clear the debate on the appropriate European model for net neutrality will go on, including at the 6th EuroDIG meeting, to be held end June in Lisbon. Whatever route it takes, it is important to observe net neutrality not only from the business and technical perspective, but predominantly from a human rights point of view. The Internet is not just an invention but a step forwards for civilization. We are not just consumers but, above all, users and citizens.