European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda
Net neutrality – the way forward
European Commission and European Parliament Summit on 'The Open Internet and Net Neutrality in Europe'
Brussels, 11 November 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank you all for your active participation in today’s summit. It seems that hard work is paying off.
In particular, I would like to thank the Parliament for its co-operation and for co-hosting the summit; especially Herbert Reul as Chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy.
The net neutrality debate attracts great interest all around the world, as the open character of the Internet is a value almost universally recognised.
This debate started several years ago in the United States, where no clear solution has been identified yet and discussions are still very passionate.
The debate became lively in the European Parliament during the review of the EU telecoms framework.
Specific measures to tackle potential net neutrality problems have been introduced in the 2009 Telecoms Package, but at the time there was a general perception that this could not as such close the debate.
I therefore launched a very wide and open consultation, which ran from June to September.
Let me now take stock of the debate so far, and say where I am heading.
Where are we today?
Firstly, the European telecoms framework provides the conditions for both network and service competition. This has given rise to many competitive Internet offers, and easier switching.
We should not underestimate this element.
A healthy competitive environment allows tackling many potential problems at their root, avoiding the emergence of monopolistic gatekeepers which could create serious dangers for net neutrality.
This is why the debate is different here than in the United States.
But competition alone is not sufficient to avoid potential problems.
To let competition work, consumers need to be effectively informed about traffic management practices and to be able to easily switch to alternative operators if they are not satisfied.
Secondly, we have to avoid regulation which might deter investment and an efficient use of the available resources.
That would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.
We need investment to avoid bottlenecks and to allow the development of new bandwidth-hungry services and applications.
We should allow network operators and services and content providers to explore innovative business models, leading to a more efficient use of the networks and creating new business opportunities at different levels of the Internet value chain.
Thirdly, nearly everyone agrees that traffic management is essential, not only to optimise the provision of "best effort services" on the open Internet, but also to allow the development of special managed services, such as eLearning or eHealth applications, which are very valuable for European society.
It is clear, however, that traffic management should be used properly, in order to increase the quality of Internet services, preserve network integrity and open the way to new investments in efficient networks.
It should not become simply a means of exploiting current network constraints.
Fourthly, in general, providers have upheld the principle of open access – end users may access most of the applications and services of their choice.
However, blocking and "throttling" of sites and applications or applying differentiated end-user data charges for certain applications continues to a certain extent.
This clearly creates a problem if consumers are not duly informed and do not have the possibility to easily switch to alternative providers which do not undertake such practices.
Blocking of Internet telephone services i.e. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) – in particular Skype - over mobile networks is the obvious example today.
The situation has improved somewhat but the problem has by no means been fully resolved.
VoIP is merely today's example. There will surely be other examples with future innovations and that is why we cannot be complacent.
But I think consumers should not underestimate their own power in shaping this situation.
There were 21 million people using Skype alongside me when I called my family at the weekend.
That is a huge market. And I say to those people who are currently cut off from Skype: vote with your feet and leave your mobile provider.
The message will be most powerful when it comes from both the bottom-up and the top-down.
Where do these facts lead us?
I believe that any content or application that is legal and which does not cause undue congestion or otherwise harm other users or network integrity should be fully accessible.
In the spirit of net neutrality all such content and applications should receive equal treatment.
This should not require "must carry obligation" on each ISP.
However, the system as a whole, comprising multiple operators, should ensure that European consumers are able to easily access and distribute content, services and applications of their choice.
You all know me well enough to know I am ready to take action to ensure this, if it this proves to be necessary at any stage.
How should we ensure the open Internet?
The telecoms framework, agreed by the European Parliament and Council, gives us important tools.
Firstly, national regulatory authorities have a clear mandate to “promote the ability of end-users to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice”.
Making this work requires a spirit of collaboration between industry and regulators.
Secondly, regulators are also empowered to impose, in close cooperation with the Commission, minimum quality of service requirements to prevent service degradation.
Thirdly, operators are required to inform customers of any traffic management measures they are deploying.
Given the potential of those tools, it is only fair that we test their effectiveness.
That means allowing a reasonable period of time after these provisions are implemented and applied to see if the new rules are working.
We will make sure these provisions are applied in all Member States in a coordinated and coherent way.
We should not allow a patchwork approach and we will monitor this closely.
For application in the market I want to work with industry and the national telecoms regulatory authorities (NRAs) to give these rules meaning for consumers, and I am ready to issue guidance based on identifiable best practice.
I hope this monitoring and the upcoming implementation of the telecoms framework by Member States will pave the way for truly open networks.
But if we encounter significant and persistent problems, I will not be afraid to change the law in the future to achieve competition and choice consumers deserve, be it through general measures to enhance competition, such as to further facilitate consumer switching, or if this fails, through targeted obligations on unjustified traffic differentiation applicable to all ISPs irrespective of market power.
And throughout these efforts, the Commission will keep Parliament updated and involved on market developments.
To sum up:
I consider that the core of the Internet should remain a robust, best effort Internet to which everyone has access.
I want to leave room for future innovation, also with regard to special managed services.
However, this should not be at the expense of choice and quality, putting at risk the open Internet which everyone wants to preserve.
So our future efforts must be aimed at delivering:
transparency to allow consumer choice
ease of switching.
Competition is the open Internet's best friend, and the NRAs our best insurance policy, so let us undertake this journey together.