New net neutrality study leads to calls for EU legislation

Blocking and throttling is happening on an unacceptably large scale say groups

Blocking VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and peer-to-peer Internet traffic is common in the European Union, said E.U. regulator BEREC, leading to calls for an E.U. net neutrality law.

BEREC (the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) surveyed more than 400 organizations, including 250 fixed and 150 mobile operators, as part of a study to find out whether net neutrality legislation is required in the E.U.

The initial findings revealed that blocking or throttling of VoIP and peer-to-peer traffic is the most common form of Internet traffic management practice Europe-wide. About one quarter of respondents justified traffic management policies on the basis of "security and integrity," controlling spam for example.

But when blocking or throttling is implemented on the network, it is typically done through deep packet inspection (DPI), a practice that digital rights organizations see as particularly worrying from a privacy point of view.

"Blocking of online services is downright unacceptable and illegitimate throttling should be stamped out," said Monique Goyens, director general of the European consumer organization BEUC.

DPI allows providers to look at the information contained within digital packets rather than just the header. However, ISPs insist that DPI is necessary in order to keep networks operating smoothly while demand for bandwidth-heavy applications intensifies. About one third of the fixed operators taking part in the BEREC study said that they manage their networks in order to offer services such as telephony or TV "alongside a public and best efforts Internet access service."

BEREC said that many of the traffic management measures used would be better described as "congestion" management. Some operators use an "application-agnostic" approach rather than targeting specific traffic, such as video streaming. The blocking of VoIP services, such as Skype, is most used on mobile networks and usually as a result of specific contract terms.

Although the European Commission has said in the past that it will take action on net neutrality, this is the first time the regulators have sought to identify trends in traffic management and evidence of negative experiences from users.

BEREC is currently evaluating the data and will publish its findings during the second quarter of this year. This will form part of a larger debate on the need for net neutrality legislation in the E.U., something welcomed by digital rights group EDRi.

"We always knew, and BEREC has now confirmed, that breaches of net neutrality were happening on a large scale in deliberate attempts to undermine competition. One wonders how many years we will have to wait for effective legal tools to stop this activity. Apart from the Netherlands, every other country appears to be waiting to be told what to do by the European Commission," said EDRi Coordinator Joe McNamee.

Citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net also called for legislation. "These preliminary findings prove that E.U. operators impose unjustifiable restrictions to Internet access. Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes' laissez-faire approach to net neutrality allows operators to violate their users' freedom of communication and privacy. She can no longer deny the evidence and must urgently propose a E.U.-wide law on net neutrality," said La Quadrature du Net spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann in a statement.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

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