European Commission favors consumer choice over net neutrality legislation

Neelie Kroes wants to give consumers the opportunity to choose neutral Internet access services, but won't ban limited access services

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes won't legislate net neutrality for all, but those who want "access to a robust, best-efforts Internet with all the applications they wish" should have the opportunity to buy such a service, she said Tuesday.

It is important to ensure that Internet users can always choose full internet access, Kroes wrote in a blog post.

"I don't like to intervene in competitive markets unless I am sure this is the only way to help either consumers or companies. Preferably both," she wrote. "A badly designed remedy may be worse than the disease, producing unforeseen harmful effects long into the future."

It is better to regulate in favor of consumer choice instead of forcing each and every operator to provide full Internet access, Kroes said.

Kroes cited data from a new report from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) that surveyed fixed and mobile operators as part of a study to find out whether net neutrality legislation is required in the E.U.

At least 20 percent of E.U. mobile broadband users, and potentially up to half of them, have contracts that allow their providers to restrict access to P2P file sharing and to VOIP services such as Skype, Kroes said. She also noted that about 20 percent of the fixed operators in the E.U. apply restrictions to P2P volumes at peak times, which could affect up to 95 percent of users in a country.

Consumers should be free to choose to obtain a discount by buying limited online services if they wish, she said. Enforcing net neutrality for all could create obstacles to entrepreneurs who want to provide tailored connected services or service bundles, she said.

However, for most Europeans, their Internet access works well most of the time, Kroes said. In stead of proposing net neutrality legislation, which would require providers to handle all Internet services and packages equally, Kroes proposes to regulate in favor of consumer choice. According to the BEREC report, 85 percent of fixed Internet service providers (ISPs) and 76 percent of all mobile ISPs offer at least one unrestricted Internet package, she said.

To guarantee consumer choices Kroes proposed to regulate that consumers get clear information on what they are buying. Consumers should for instance know what they can do with advertised Internet speeds. She also proposed to give users clear information on data limits, calling for clear, quantified data ceilings rather than vague fair-use policies. Besides that, consumers should know if they are getting full Internet access or not, and regulators should have control over how ISPs market their services, she said.

Net neutrality supporters were not happy with Kroes's proposals.

"I have been expecting this but I am indeed disappointed," said Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson of citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, which favors an E.U.-wide net neutrality law. Kroes' conclusions are not satisfactory for users, Zimmerman said. "The status quo is to satisfy the operators."

Monique Goyens, Director General of The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), said that consumers expect access to an open and neutral Internet, but that today they cannot know how much their ISP is interfering with their Internet service. It's not enough to expect that this problem will be solved by competition, or allowing consumers to switch operators, she said. "Switching makes no sense if all service offers are inadequate," she said in an email.

"We are disappointed to see the Commission be presented with such facts and then walk away from regulating a solution," Goyens said. "The BEREC report finds that at least 20 percent and indeed up to 50 percent of mobile broadband providers in the E.U. block services like Skype. What more evidence does the European Commission need?"

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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