The European Union’s latest Net Neutrality pronouncement had all the earmarks of the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Just like the FCC’s Dec. 21 order on an open Internet, EU Vice President Neelie Kroes said all the right things, tiptoed right up to the line, and then backed off before doing anything significant to protect Internet users.
In making the long-awaited announcement of its Net Neutrality policy, Kroes said all the right things. “The true value of the internet lies in the fact that it belongs to all of us.” That’s true. “As a platform for free expression, for community, for business – it may even be our most valuable communal asset.” Can’t argue with that.
Then there was: “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.” All well and good, right?
The report as well stated the obvious about an Open Internet:
“The internet owes much of its success to the fact that it is open and easily accessible, provided that the user has an internet connection. In order to provide content or services, save for some basic technical requirements, an individual or a company does not currently face high entry costs or other barriers that are characteristic of many other entrenched network industries. Indeed it is the absence of these barriers that has enabled many of the applications that are now household names to take off.”
The policy was good as far as it went, but the problem was it didn’t go very far. It endorsed some modest U.S.-style changes — a need for transparency and quality standards, as well as a non-U.S. factor, ease in switching providers. The last one is significant because in many EU countries, there is some choice for consumers that we in the U.S. don’t have. The EU, to its credit, still maintains requirements that Internet Service Providers lease lines and have wholesale arrangements with other companies. As a result, consumers in many countries actually have some choice in providers. The new rules, to be published at the end of May, will make certain “that conditions and procedures for contract termination do not act as a disincentive against changing service provider.”
Instead of setting out clear rules against anticompetitive or discriminatory behavior, Kroes took the path the telecom industry wanted her (and the FCC) to take. What Kroes wants, however, is for the health of the Internet (European version) to be guaranteed by consumers: “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.”
She and her staff “will spend 2011 closely looking at current market practices.” Instead of finding that any carriers have been found to have violated a law, they will instead be publicly shamed:
“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.”
While it’s nice to put the burden of finding bad actors on other businesses and on consumers, it’s not sufficient. Many businesses might not feel comfortable reporting such instances, and consumers simply don’t have the tools or time to do it.
More than that, however, the EU decision shows an alarming trend to follow the timid steps of the current FCC, rather than to move boldly ahead as it has in the past. Just as some wish that current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had the determination of former Chairman Kevin Martin (), the Kroes dance around Net Neutrality pales beside the more aggressive Vivane Reding, who formerly held the tech portfolio for the EU.
Even as more and more people ditch landlines in favor of a wireless-only connection, the FCC went ahead with granting wired Internet users the rights to an open Internet. And even as AT&T starts its takeover of T-Mobile to consolidate the wireless market, the FCC stands behinds this halfway policy.
It would be bad enough if the industry-appeasing attitude were confined to the U.S. But now it’s spreading to other parts of the world, which have known, and should know, better. It’s spreading at a time when a recent report found that threats to Internet freedom are gathering strength all the time, in the U.S. and around the world. That’s the shame of it all.