The European Commission Must Act To Protect Net Neutrality

Paris, November 19th, 2010 – In a letter sent today to Commissioner Neelie Kroes, in charge of the Digital Agenda, La Quadrature du Net calls on the European Commission to take concrete steps to protect Net neutrality in the European Union. Following Mrs. Kroes' speech last week during the EU Net neutrality summit, the citizen advocacy group urges the Commission to engage with national regulatory authorities to ensure that the socio-economic benefits brought about by the Internet will be preserved. A long-awaited debate on which traffic management practices are acceptable and which are not, along with firm guidelines and enforcement, are urgently needed if our societies are to protect Net neutrality.

Last week, the European Commission and the European Parliament co-hosted an summit on Net neutrality, which marked the end of a consultation process initiated last June. Commissioner Kroes' speech1 included some encouraging remarks, but was overall disappointing. Even though she stressed that she would not hesitate to pass new regulation to protect Net neutrality, there no reason to delay such urgent regulatory intervention.

“Instead of a firm commitment to protecting the foundational principle of Net neutrality through law, EU citizens were served with a mere 'wait and see' attitude. The Commission seems ready to show blind faith in market forces to prevent network operators from violating the historic openness of the Internet, and with it competition, innovation and fundamental rights", says Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for La Quadrature du Net, who took part in last week's summit2.

Citizens must continue to make their voice heard in this debate, both at the EU level and in Member States. They can use La Quadrature's tool Political Memory3 to get in touch with their representatives at the European Parliament and urge them to call on the Commission to take a proactive stance on this crucial issue.

"By the time European authorities decide to act, discriminatory practices may have become the norm, and the Internet as we know it today might be a mere memory. Even if it is understandable that the Commission doesn't want to go ahead today with a lengthy lawmaking process, it must act alongside national regulators to make sure that the Internet infrastructure will remain neutral, on both landline and mobile networks”, concludes Jérémie Zimmermann.

For more information on Net neutrality, see our response to the EU Commission's consultation on the matter4.

Open Letter sent to Commissioner Kroes

Dear Commissioner Kroes,

We write to urge you to take a pro-active approach to protect network neutrality in the months ahead. On taking office as Commissioner for the Digital Agenda earlier this year, you stated you attachment to the protection of network neutrality, which ensures that the Internet can remain an open and generative communications platform. Last week, during the summit on Net neutrality co-organized by the Commission and the European Parliament, you stressed once again the need to ensure that end-users can “easily access and distribute content, services and applications of their choice”, thus showing your deep understanding of the crucial importance of this principle for the protection of freedom of communication and innovation.

However, we remain unconvinced by your claim that the current regulatory framework – which relies on competition and some degree of transparency – can successfully prevent the development of discriminatory Internet traffic management practices (in particular since it is highly plausible that all the operators in a given market may engage in discriminatory practices). As you acknowledged last week, there are already indeed several instances where telecoms operators willingly throttle sites, services or protocols, or engage in inadmissible differentiated treatments of data. It is especially the case in the United Kingdom, despite past attempts by national regulator Ofcom to alleviate discriminatory practices by increasing competition and transparency for consumers. Clearly, this approach has failed, and we regret that the Commission is now suggesting sticking to this “wait-and-see” approach. The stakes of this debate are too high to just let the market operate and hope that consumers will “vote with their feet”. All stakeholders understand the importance of preserving Net neutrality, and so actions must match deeds before it is too late.

While we understand that the EU telecommunications sector is currently undergoing an important reform with the transposition of the Telecoms Package, the Commission can and must ensure that national regulator will be granted appropriate tools to deal with unreasonable discriminatory practices as the transposition process unfolds. The Commission can protect the wider public interest by calling for the adoption of general guidelines regarding which practices are acceptable, and which are not. For instance – as suggested by some national regulatory authorities – regulators could presume against all traffic management practices that fail meet certain criteria (they should be non commercial practices corresponding to approved engineering purpose, such as unforeseen congestion of security threat, and prevent any form of artificial scarcity of bandwidth).

This can be done in the short term, without engaging a difficult lawmaking process to enshrine network neutrality in EU law (though the latter might prove necessary). But at least it will show that the Commission is determined to guarantee that the Internet will remain open and free for all citizens and innovators, thereby protecting the contribution of the Internet to our democracies and economies. We invite the Commission to also make clear that, in case the approaches suggested above do not prove sufficient to protect the overall network neutrality, it will be ready to table a requirement for Member States to ensure that a generally accessible offer guaranteeing end-to-end neutrality across both mobile and fixed Internet is accessible to all citizens.

We remain available for any inquiry you may have.

Philippe Aigrain, Gérald Sédrati-Dinet, Benjamin Sonntag and Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founders of citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.