Kroes slips into net neutral, but wait for the sting
Neelie Kroes sounds convincing, especially on first listen. She's fully convinced, for instance, of the advantages of an open Internet and she peppered her speech with the usual high-blown rhetoric. "The internet is a great place to exercise and enjoy liberty. A great place to innovate, and implement new ideas without having to ask permission. And an open forum for all kinds of activity. That's why people find the internet such an incredible place to explore, experiment, experience. That's why there's so many great online services for all to enjoy," she said.
So there will be policy in place to prevent overt discrimination against competing services, unwarranted throttling, and a requirement for transparency by ISPs. There will also be rules over making it easy to switch providers.
So all good then?
"Oh, just one more thing Sir," as Colombo, the scruffy but all-seeing detective used to say. At the end of that passage Kroes adds: "That's why people are prepared to pay for high-quality connections: and are disappointed if they don’t deliver."
I think we can see what's coming here. And there's more.
Kroes went on to tell the Parliament about the difficulty of threading through all the arguments (read: constant lobbying from the telcos): "Even though we agree on values, the debate is no less complex. Take the public highway: another open network. You can get on wherever you want, explore and drive anywhere. Yet, our roads aren't a lawless anarchy: they have traffic lights, speed limits, a Highway Code. Nor, on the other hand, do we overregulate; governments don't tell you what kind of car to buy, or where to drive to. "
And then, stinger number two. "And, however open it is, the road network doesn't come free of charge; someone has to pay, whether through taxes or tolls."
Kroes appears to think that "someone" isn't paying. Where have I heard that language before? Ah yes, that would be the voice of ETNO, the apparently powerful European Telecoms Network Operators (see the excellent 'Countering the tedious anti-Internet rhetoric' article by Benoit Felten).
There's more. Different users, said Kroes, "have different network needs. Some people want a straightforward mobile package to check the odd email or website. Others want to constantly watch videos on their tablet, consuming high bandwidth. Those different needs are all valid; they are a reflection of the richness and diversity of the internet itself. I want to put those consumer needs right at the centre of our thinking. Operators need to respect these different needs, and to do that they must also be allowed to innovate to meet those needs."
What does that mean? Who or what is stopping them from innovating? Well, it's early days, but my guess is that one target here is the idea of strictly outlawing business discrimination. Telcos have long wanted (or at least thought they wanted) the ability to offer restricted services for a low or free cost. So rather than get an open Internet, the user who couldn't afford the full price of an Internet connection could get access just to those sites that revenue-shared with the operator, thus paying for the connection. That's apparently called "innovation".
That's not the Internet. That's the equivalent of a high-priced corner store that poor people use because they don't have easy access to the supermarket.
So what are we going to get?
"For me, an open platform is built on competition, innovation transparency, and choice. And that is what our proposal will be built on too," says Kroes.
"First, we should allow innovation. The new services round the corner depend not just on content, but on high-quality connections. For example, if you've just bought a videoconferencing system, you'll probably also want an internet service that guarantees the right quality, end-to-end. If someone wants to pay extra for that, no EU rules should stand in their way; it's not my job to ban people from buying those services, nor to prevent people providing them. If you don't want to buy them that is also fine, and you should absolutely continue to benefit from the "best efforts internet".
So clearly Kroes is going to enable a two-speed Internet by allowing ISPs to offer better than best effort for an extra fee (the danger here, of course, is that the best effort becomes a dirt track, forcing users into the upper tier if they want to view video).
Of more importance, in my opinion, is whether the "right quality end-to-end" means that access operators will be able to double-charge for the same carriage - both users and 'upstream' providers, like Facebook or YouView. If so, that will be a real change and a real challenge to the net neutrality advocates.