A More European Approach to Net Neutrality

Exactly one month ago, on the 29th of September 2014, I gave a talk in the LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn at the International Conference on Consumer Research 2014 – “Challenges for Consumer Research and Consumer Policy in Europe”. This was also the event at which I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Armin Falk’s talk on mice, morals and marketplaces (which I wrote about in “Of Mice and Markets“). I would like to thank Dr. Christian Bala and the Kompetenzzentrum Verbraucherforschung NRW again for the opportunity to talk at this conference, and bore a captive audience with my thoughts on the future of net neutrality policy in Europe.

In my talk I focused on the differences between “positive” and “negative” net neutrality, and that players in the argument about telecommunications policy are often using the term “net neutrality” to mean subtly but significantly different things. As Christopher Marsden puts it himself:

I have categorised net neutrality into positive and negative (content discrimination) net neutrality indicating the latter as potentially harmful. Blocking content without informing customers appropriately is wrong: if it says ‘Internet service’, it should offer an open Internet (alongside walled gardens if that is expressly advertised as such).

As well as in more detail in “Net Neutrality: Towards a Co-Regulatory Solution“:

As this introduction begins to uncover, ‘net neutrality’ is a deceptively simple phrase hiding a multitude of meanings. First, it has to be unpacked to discover that it comprises two separate non-discrimination commitments. Backward-looking ‘net neutrality lite’ claims that Internet users should not be disadvantaged due to opaque and invidious practices by their current ISP. Forward-looking ‘positive net neutrality’ describes a practice whereby higher QoS for higher prices should be offered on fair reasonable and non-discriminatory terms to all-comers, a modern equivalent of common carriage. It is a more debateable principle, with many content providers and carriers preferring exclusive arrangements.

This is, for example, why you might find the likes of Netflix arguing that they are pro-net-neutrality – stating that ISPs should not be able to slow down or throttle content from content providers who they are in competition with – but that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) might do a double-take on hearing that news, as they, and many others, consider Netflix’s deal with Comcast to be fundamentally in breach of net neutrality by opening up the creation of fast-lanes and the dreaded “two-tiered internet”.

I further delved into the issues of this two-tiered internet, vertical integration and “preferred partners”, as well as explaining how Europe has taken relatively comprehensive steps against negative breaches of net neutrality, but has left the question of positive net neutrality open. There is a new Telecoms Reform on the way in Europe, however the issue of net neutrality has gone back and forth throughout the negotiations and, especially given the more centre-right make-up of the European Parliament (the traditional proponents of stricter net neutrality regulation), so the future of net neutrality in Europe remains uncertain.

And for those of you who are for some reason not yet bored of my mild obsession with net neutrality, never fear, a publication of the paper behind this talk is in the works.


Photo Credit: JasonWalton via photopin cc


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