European Union, France to consult on net neutrality

The European Commission will launch its public consultation later this year; in France the process began this week.

The European Commission will launch a public consultation on the issue of network neutrality this quarter, Neelie Kroes, commissioner for the digital agenda, said Tuesday.

She intends to report back to the European Parliament before the end of the year whether regulatory action on net neutrality is necessary. However, she set the bar for introducing new regulation high, saying it must be justified by the need to tackle specific problems.

The debate over net neutrality is already under way, and not just in the U.S., where the question of whether the U.S. Federal Communications Commission can mandate it has already reached the courts.

The recently created Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), which brings together the national regulatory authorities of E.U. member states, has already set up a project team to work on net neutrality issues, Kroes said Tuesday.

France has already begun its consultation: Kroes was speaking at a conference on net neutrality organized by the French Postal and Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority, ARCEP, which is looking at the role of telecommunications operators.

The French government is also studying the question, having commissioned a report on the subject last Friday, announced Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, French secretary of state for strategic analysis and the development of the digital economy, also speaking at the conference.

One of the first things these different studies will have to agree on is what they mean by net neutrality.

For Matthew Kirk, director of external affairs at British mobile network operator Vodafone Group, it's OK to charge to prioritize the traffic of certain content providers -- as long as all providers of a particular kind of traffic (video, say, or VoIP) are offered the same terms.

Benjamin Bayart, chairman of French Data Network, on the other hand, sees no justification for prioritizing, or charging for, different kinds of traffic differently. Filtering packets to see whether they contain e-mail is a violation of the secrecy of private correspondence, he said.

A delegate from the Swedish telecommunications regulator wondered whether network operators would be forced to spell out in laborious detail which protocols their "Internet" access services would carry, which they would block and which they would delay depending on the source.

Google Senior Policy Director Richard Whitt said transparency was key, and suggested that operators only be allowed to advertise a service as "Internet access" if it offers full access to all Internet services without interference from the operator.

French mobile network operators already face a number of legal challenges to their use of the term "unlimited Internet access" in advertising, because the services so advertised imposed limits either on the services that could be accessed or the volume of data that could be transmitted. Stéphane Richard, newly appointed CEO of France Télécom, said his company had overused the word "unlimited" for things that weren't really unlimited.

"We have to end a certain number of commercial practices of this sort," he said.

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