European Union

The European Union has reached an agreement on Net Neutrality which said that telecom companies and Internet providers in the EU are not allowed to block or throttle online content, applications, or services. The EU agreement also banned paid prioritization of Internet traffic and ruled that all traffic should be treated equally. “These rules will be a reality across all Member States as soon as the text officially applies on 30 April 2016,” the EU said in a release.

However, the EU language is milder in its enforcement of Net Neutrality and will allow some traffic management by telecom companies. From the FAQ section:

At the same time, equal treatment allows reasonable day-to-day traffic management according to justified technical requirements, and which must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic.

The EU also elaborated on the instances where network traffic management can be considered:

– to comply with Union or national legislation related to the lawfulness of content or with criminal law, or with measures implementing this legislation such as a decision by public authorities or a court order, for instance if a judge or the police have ordered blocking of specific illegal content

– to preserve the security and integrity of the network, for instance to prevent misuse of a network and combat viruses, malware or denial of services attacks

– to minimise network congestion that is temporary or exceptional. This means that operators cannot invoke this exception if their network is frequently congested due to under-investment and capacity scarcity.

– to filter spam, if users want to avoid such unsolicited communications, as well as to allow parents to set up parental filters that block pornography or gratuitous violence, with the prior request or consent of end-users and the possibility to withdraw the consent, and thus such filters, at any time.

Specialized services

Unlike the United States’ FCC stricter ruling on Net Neutrality, the European Union will allow services like IPTV, high-definition video conferencing or healthcare services like telesurgery a special provision over the public open Internet, provided that they do not harm open Internet access. “More and more innovative services require a certain transmission quality in order to work properly, such as telemedicine or automated driving. These and other services that can emerge in the future can be developed as long as they do not harm the availability and the quality of the open Internet,” the EU elaborated.

Zero rating agreements

The EU’s rules on Net Neutrality however allowed Zero Rating of applications and services by operators and said that regulatory authorities will have to monitor and ensure that these rules are followed. “Zero rating does not block competing content and can promote a wider variety of offers for price-sensitive users, give them interesting deals, and encourage them to use digital services. But we have to make sure that commercial practices benefit users and do not in practice lead to situations where end-users’ choice is significantly reduced,” the EU said.

What it means for India and our take 

Amid the Net Neutrality debate going on in India, the government will be keeping a close eye on the developments in the EU to frame regulations here. However the net neutrality rules defined by the the EU are disappointing in terms of the fact that they will allow Zero Rating platforms. We’ve argued before that Zero Rating of platforms is not in the best interests of the consumers as it would result in a “poor Internet for the poor man”. One needs to only look at Facebook’s zero-rating platform, Internet.org, which we’ve pointed out is a privacy nightmare and will not allow VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos. This will result in a very compromised experience of the Internet for first time users and they will be denied the opportunities of a truly open Internet.

The EU rules also fail to recognize that Zero Rating is a form of positive discrimination that will give services on them an edge. In a price sensitive market like India, Facebook  and telecom operators could end up playing kingmaker as they can still reject services on their platform as “operators may decline services that cause undue strain to networks, or breach legal or regulatory requirements.”

We also reported that there are alternatives to Zero Rating which are being developed by the Mozilla Foundation which can work without distorting the market for services and can be supported through advertisements. Perhaps a bigger emphasis should be given to them here in India.

Photo credit: Flickr user Stuart Chalmers