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Open Internet Access on the Line in Brussels

Cathy Sloan

This summer EU regulators are finalizing their guidelines for member states on legal protections for wired, wireless and mobile open Internet access service. European citizens, businesses and NGOs have one last chance to make their voices heard on the so-called "net neutrality" guidelines by writing a comment for Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) by July 18.

Open Internet access means that everything on the Internet whether free to the public or by paid subscription must be equally accessible via your Internet connection.

Digital content is king on the net and ISPs have a natural economic incentive to steer you toward their own sports and entertainment content and to charge new fees to the most popular Internet platforms for delivery of movies, music and social media over the same 2-way Internet connection you already pay your ISP for. That's double selling you capacity while cannibalising your regular Internet access.

Tangible threats to open Internet access lurk in Europe today, not the least of which is the level of technical and legal complexity in the Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 itself. In combination with some conflicting and ambiguous interpretations in the BEREC guidelines, this situation could lead 28 separate national authorities to very different implementation of the Regulation. Such a patchwork would certainly frustrate achievement of the digital single market, harming entrepreneurial innovation and economic growth.

It helps to keep the focus on the underlying principles of a decentralized borderless public Internet and open access to it for all. ISPs should not be allowed to manipulate, limit or partition the connectivity they sell you. That would be exploiting their monopoly into and out of your home or business or your smartphone.

When ISPs impose data caps, they should not be allowed to discriminate by exempting your use of platforms that pay them for that advantage while other content you consume gobbles up your monthly data allowance. Neither should they discriminate against their competitors by "zero rating" their own video programming, cloud services or online gaming. That effectively imposes a tax on your use of alternative independent services, which do count against your bandwidth cap.

Tim Berners-Lee recently quoted in Tech Dirt, both as a European, and as inventor of the world wide web, spotlighted new loopholes in draft regulatory guidance around allowing ISPs freedom to manage traffic on their networks in their own commercial interest rather than safeguarding clearly defined end user rights.

Both technical network "fast lanes" and pricing advantages for big corporations and highest end consumers leave most users with slower connectivity and less bandwidth. That's an unfair competitive disadvantage for a startup or other small business that today's Internet giants never had to face. And it only aggravates harsh socio-economic digital divisions associated with lack of access to high-end electronic devices and network infrastructure.

European citizens deserve the same open Internet access and unfettered connectivity that Americans enjoy and now rely on by settled U.S. law. Only clear and simple legal safeguards free of broad or ambiguous exceptions will provide these assurances to European consumers, entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Consumers and small businesses should not have to study network engineering in order to defend themselves against their ISP. Even sophisticated regulators will never be able to fully enforce restrictions on network management practices because the telecoms won't allow government monitoring of their network operations. What can be tracked is the actual connectivity that end users experience. So if your movies or videos often buffer, or your Skype calls are often dropped using the same ISP, regulators should intervene. Telecom ISPs are in the business of providing adequate connectivity and capacity for all of their customers.

By Cathy Sloan, Internet industry Executive, Lawyer, Access Advocate

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