Dear Commissioner, chairman, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to participate in such an interesting debate. I am glad to represent here the Culture and Education Committee of the European Parliament and to give my view on what is at stake on the crucial debate on the open internet.
First of all, allow me to congratulate the European Commission for having put forward an open consultation on net neutrality, which will represent a key step forward on the debate at the European level.
I would like to start by saying that I am glad to see all the relevant internet neutrality stakeholders, from civil society and current internet users, to large corporate media, Internet Service Providers and regulators, represented here at the Summit. I am convinced that only listening to eachother’s demands we will be able to build together an adequate framework for net neutrality in Europe.
Although it may seem that the concept of network neutrality must have appeared recently, it is, instead, a very old principle, existing since the age of the telegraph. In fact, in 1860, a US federal law stated that:
“Messages received from any individual, company, or corporation shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority …”
That was 150 years ago and today the principle remains the same: it means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network.
Yet, the circumstances today are very different. Electronic communications increasingly take on a strategic dimension in our society, in particular, the economic and social role of an open internet. At the same time, technological developments, changing consumption habits and evolving business models, challenge the relationship between internet players and trigger the public debate on net neutrality.
Inspired by the debate in the US and sometimes confused by the noise and radicalization of some positions, some have wanted to picture the debate in a very simplistic manner, as if it was a quarrel between two somehow incompatible positions:
On one side the big corporations, the infrastructure owners, who are willing to do anything to earn more money, and, on the other side, web users and regulators who fear that we are at the end of the open and democratic internet.
I would say that, far from that, the debate has evolved a lot since the beginning of the decade. Most actors have toned down their claims or adapted their opinions and there is a strong convergence on which are the challenges and risks that open internet faces today.
In order to answer the question that has been put to the panel: what is at stake on the internet neutrality debate? We need to understand first the full reasoning of the different stakeholders. Only through approaching the complexity of the debate we will be able to offer solutions for the benefit of all of us.
Let’s see what the proponents of net neutrality actually say and then we will explore the opinion of those against it.
1. Proponents of net neutrality argue that allowing for preferential treatment of Internet traffic would put weaker and newer online companies at a disadvantage and slow innovation in online services. They believe that most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital. And they are right.
In the past years, network neutrality has allowed to maximize competition and innovate. Open internet has guaranteed a free and competitive market for Internet content. And the benefits have been extraordinary.
Moreover, proponents of net neutrality have raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their infrastructure to block contents. Telecoms could demand a toll to guarantee delivery and, as “gatekeepers”, could decide who gets premium treatment and who doesn’t.
They are rightly worried that if net neutrality is not respected it could leave non-commercial sites on a poorer, slower web where they would find it harder to attract readers – changing the democratic nature of the internet. Perhaps, also, users in the developing world would find it even harder to access “full” internet experience.
As a member of the Committee of Culture and Education at the European Parliament, I believe institutions should do all what is in their hands to promote equal and democratic access to the enormous pool of knowledge that internet represents.
Tim Berners-Lee, the internet Protocol co-inventor and highly respected figure from the tech industry has been quoted saying:
“the threat is that companies can control what I access for commercial reasons. In China, companies could control what users access for political reasons. Freedom of connection with any application to any party is the fundamental social basis of the internet”.
And some of these fears are supported by evidence. In their response to the open consultation by the European Commission, the recently created Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) notes that there have been cases where equal treatment of all data was not ensured.
For these reasons, some supporters of net neutrality believe that more regulation is needed. In their view, without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class Internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content.
2. On the other hand, there are those against net neutrality, represented by a wide range of actors (not only big Telecoms) who believe that this scenario is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world doesn’t exist today, nor will it exist in the future. Without additional regulation, they say, service providers are likely to continue doing what they are doing. They will continue to offer a variety of broadband service plans at a variety of price points to suit every type of consumer.
They argue that consumers in Europe benefit from a highly competitive market place for broadband internet access, choosing from a range of providers and options to access and use the internet.
They fear that regulation restricting traffic management and service differentiation would undermine Europe’s digital economy and competitiveness by excluding new business models and hampering necessary innovation.
They argue that Google or YouTube which are currently using much more bandwidth than other smaller sites, should pay more for the use of their Internet switches and routers, particularly considering that infrastructures have capacity limitations that cannot be ignored.
Moreover, those against internet neutrality fear that technological progress could be under risk if they have to bear all of their equipment upgrades themselves. They think that by giving online companies the possibility to pay for transfer their data packets faster than other Internet traffic, the added revenue from such services could be used to pay for the building of increased broadband access to more consumers.
They defend that Europe has as its disposal a robust regulatory and competition framework for protecting consumers in case of anti-competitive behaviour.
Indeed, the revised EU framework for electronic communications includes additional transparency measures that further enhance consumers’ ability to make informed choices regarding their internet service. In addition, national authorities dispose of a new reserve competence to prevent a possible degradation of service quality for consumers.
So, who is right? Both parties are partly right and partly wrong. I believe that product differentiation is beneficial for the market so long as users have their rights respected and preserve the full choice to access the services they want.
Current EU rules allow operators to offer different services to different customers groups, but not allow those who are in a dominant position to discriminate in an anti-competitive manner between customers in similar circumstances.
The “Telecoms Package” directive which must be implemented in Member States’ laws by May 2011 requires more transparency and that consumers will be informed about the nature of the service to which they are subscribing. The new rules will contribute to increase the incentives for better protection of personal data as well as to strengthen the rules concerning privacy and data protection.
Moreover, there is a wide consensus that traffic management is a necessary and essential part of the operation of an efficient internet and it is a key tool for addressing congestion and security issues. Nonetheless, we should make sure that there is no abuse of traffic management by any operator and that the fundamental right of confidentiality of communications is respected.
I agree with those that advocate further dialogue between industry, national regulators and the Commission in order to agree on a EU-wide transparency principles and a set of standardized information.
Finally I consider that some further research should be carried on to explore the possibilities of a regulatory intervention to set minimum quality standards for internet access.
As you see, the debate on internet neutrality is not one that could be simplified as a quarrel between some powerful network owners willing to become content “gatekeepers” and some internet purists that fear the end of internet. On the contrary, all stakeholders have important things to say and we must listen to all if we are to ensure a prosperous and democratic digital society for everyone. Equal and democratic access to the great cultural possibilities that internet offers must, in any case, be the guiding principle.
Thank you very much,