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Neelie Kroes

European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda

The internet belongs to all of us

Press conference on Net Neutrality Communication

Brussels, 19th April 2011

I am sure you will agree with me that the true value of the internet lies in the fact that it belongs to all of us.

As a platform for free expression, for community, for business – it may even be our most valuable communal asset. For that reason the internet must be managed carefully, transparently and lightly.

The Commission is today releasing a report on net neutrality that underlines the right of citizens and businesses to have easy access to an open and neutral internet. This is a timely report because it comes just one month before the new EU telecoms rules are due to come into force in all Member States on 25 May.

As you know, I am a firm believer in the power of competition to promote consumer interests. That means I see a clear role for using these pro-competitive new rules to ensure an open and neutral internet.

Let me mention the key points about the new rules: on transparency, quality of service and the ability to switch operator.

1. Service transparency

Customers are entitled to make informed choices about their internet provider on the basis of clear and accurate information about possible restrictions on access to particular services, actual connection speeds and possible limits on internet speeds. Customers should not be led to believe they can access services that in practice are blocked or degraded. Nor should customers be hoodwinked by misleading claims about connection speeds. There will be an obligation for telecoms providers under the new EU telecoms rules applicable from 25 May 2011 to inform customers - before they sign a contract – about precisely what they are, and are not, getting from their operator.

In particular, customers should know the range of realistic connection speeds they will be getting – not some hypothetical "up to" speed that in practice they would only get if they lived next door to the exchange or if no one else in their neighbourhood were using the internet at the same time.

Customers should also be informed about the precise nature of any traffic management techniques or limitations of service they will face. If there are limits on connection speeds or downloading, or if certain services are blocked or degraded, customers must be told clearly in advance.

2. Minimum quality requirements

The new telecoms rules will allow national regulators, after consulting the Commission, to set minimum quality of service requirements for network transmission services.

3. Switching internet service providers

The new telecoms rules require Member States to ensure that customers can switch phone and internet operators within one working day and keep the same phone number. This provision is crucial to ensuring that customers can not only shop around for the best offer but also exercise their right to switch operator with the minimum of disruption.

Internet traffic management

Today's report shows a general consensus that traffic management can be useful. For example, it is important to keep video calls running smoothly even if that means an email is delayed by a few seconds. Consumers have the right to choose services, and operators have the right to deliver services, that can meet these expectations. I do not like the blocking or degrading of certain services. But if there is such blocking or degradation, then the customer needs to be clearly informed in advance so that they can make an informed choice about the operator that gives them what they want. It is clearly not OK to block or degrade lawful services by stealth, without informing the customer.

For example, I am informed that some internet providers practise so-called "throttling", where they slow down certain types of traffic, such as video streaming provided by a competitor, in order to degrade the quality of content. Some mobile internet operators block voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services.

Let me give you some examples:

  • One company operating in several national markets is alleged to severely degrade all VoIP services so that in practice it is very difficult to use them.

  • One UK operator is said to make Skype calls technically impossible in afternoons and evenings without warning users. Others scare users from using the service or ban it altogether.

I need to verify these claims. Together with national telecoms regulators, the Commission will spend 2011 closely looking at current market practices. At the end of 2011, I will present the findings and will publicly name operators engaging in doubtful practices. I will be looking particularly closely for any instances of unannounced blocking or throttling of certain types of traffic, and any misleading advertising of broadband speeds. If I am not satisfied that consumers can counteract such practices by switching providers, I will not hesitate to introduce more stringent measures. That could be in the form of more prescriptive guidance, or even legislation if it is needed.

Mark my words: if measures to enhance competition are not enough to bring internet providers to offer real consumer choice, I am ready to prohibit the blocking of lawful services or applications. It's not OK for Skype and other such services to be throttled. That is anti-competitive. It's not OK to rip off consumers on connection speeds.

What is more, we won’t just rely on the eyes and ears of the Commission and the national regulators to measure any problems. I will be asking European consumers and businesses to be vigilant about any problems they encounter.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, we will be taking the new telecoms rules very seriously. From day one, 25th May.

The Commission will not put the achievement of the open internet at risk. I am determined that everyone in the EU should have the chance to enjoy the benefits of an open and neutral internet, without hidden restrictions or slower speeds than they have been promised.

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