WASHINGTON, November 6, 2009 - While the U.S. takes steps to make so-called Network Neutrality principles mandatory under official rules, the European Union moved forward this week with its own set of internet access requirements.
Under the proposed EU rules, “national telecoms authorities will have the powers to set minimum quality levels for network transmission services" so as to promote Net neutrality or "net freedoms" for European citizens.
In addition, owing to new transparency requirements, consumers must be informed – before signing a contract – about the nature of the service to which they are subscribing. Such disclosures must include traffic management techniques and their impact on service quality, as well as any other limitations (such as bandwidth caps or available connection speed),” according to a document posted Thursday on the portal web site of the European Union.
The Net neutrality principles outlined above are part of a telecom reform package that members of the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers agreed upon this week following intense negotiations.
The reforms were originally proposed by the European Commission in November 2007, though the sections to “reinforce the neutral character of the internet” and an internet freedom provision, are both new. If the final text of the reform package is passed by Parliament and Council in the next eight weeks without amendments, the new rules could go into force in early 2010.
The Net neutrality section of the telecom package holds that the new rules will ensure that European consumers can choose among competing broadband service providers. “Internet service providers have powerful tools at their disposal that allow them to differentiate between the various data transmissions on the internet, such as voice or 'peer-to-peer' communication.
Even though traffic management may allow premium high-quality internet protocol TV services to develop and can help ensure secure communications, the same techniques may also be used to degrade the quality of other services to unacceptably low levels or to strengthen dominant positions on the market,” according to the EU document.
The European Commission said this week that it plans to continue to “keep the neutrality of the internet under close scrutiny and to use its existing powers as well as new instruments available under the reform package to report regularly on the state of play in net neutrality to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.”
EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding noted that “Under the reformed rules, the Commission will be Europe's first line of defense when it comes to net neutrality.”
Last month in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission approved controversial proposed rules governing internet access. Meanwhile, a number of bills filed in Congress seek to either prevent or support Net neutrality regulation.
Net neutrality was not the only tough issue the EU has addressed in its reform package. Another important section has to do with a persons’ right to use the Internet until convicted of a crime. “Three-strikes-laws,” which could cut off internet access without a prior fair and impartial procedure or without effective and timely judicial review, will certainly not become part of European law,” clarified Reding.
Also in the telecom package are clauses concerning consumer rights, data security, and competition.
The consumer protection clause states that “names, email addresses and bank account information of the customers of telecoms and internet service providers, and especially the data about every phone call and internet session, need to be kept safe from accidentally or deliberately ending up in the wrong hands.”
The rules introduce mandatory notifications for personal data breaches for the first time in the EU and give internet service providers the right to take legal action against spammers.
The package makes it mandatory for European consumers to be able to change within one working day a fixed or mobile operator while keeping their old telephone number. Consumers cannot sign a new service contract with an operator for more than 24 months. The package further requires that consumers receive better information on the communications services they sign up for and that European citizens have better access to emergency services when using new technologies.
The rules seek to eliminate political interference in national telecom regulators duties and to protect “against arbitrary dismissal for the heads of national regulators.”
The legislative package would also establish a new European telecommunications authority and seeks to make radio spectrum available for wireless broadband services in areas where building a new fiber network is too expensive.