European regulators, says digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, should develop rules to ensure Internet transparency rather than push doctrinaire Internet neutrality, reports Ian Scales.
As expected, Bendy Neelie Kroes has completed her journey from net neutrality advocate ("ISPs shouldn't be allowed to limit access to service or content from commercial motivation" in her confirmation hearings for Digital Commissioner's post, 2010) to alternative business model cheer leader (ISPs SHOULD be able to limit access in return for gain, as long as they're open about it). (see - Steely Neelie goes bendy on European net neutrality).
The digital agenda commissioner for the European Commission says net neutrality doesn't matter because she's preparing regulations to strengthen Internet 'transparency' so that users can vote with their feet and pick the service that's best for them. Market forces will do the trick.
She expects to complete her task by the end of 2012 or early 2013. To that end she's acting on advice from the European regulators group, BEREC, which had previously been tasked by Kroes to look into what ISPs were doing to net traffic (was there blocking, discrimination etc going on?) and report back. The answer was 'Yes' there was a bit of tampering going on so rules were needed to make sure there wasn't any unfairness to consumers and so that they knew when and where they were being tampered with and why.
Kroes's response is not only to allow the tampering to continue but to encourage it to develop into full-blown double-dipping business models where customers get a broadband access price break in return for restricted access (with the access provider presumably getting a kick-back from the unrestricted vendors). This is the sort of commercial development she seemed to be against before... no more.
"I do not propose to force each and every operator to provide full Internet: it is for consumers to vote with their feet," Kroes is reported to have said.
"If consumers want to obtain discounts because they only plan to use limited online services, why stand in their way?"
Well there are quite a few reasons actually. First and foremost the Internet's big strength is its market discovery abilities - walled gardens work against that. Free flow of information is another. Also the fact that even in Europe there is not really a completely free market in internet access - rather there's a patchwork of territories where one (usually) operator has a dominant position - while there is a good degree of competition, foot voting is not quite the discipline it's always cracked up to be.
As a consumer palliative to the 'opening up' of the access market, Kroes says she is regulating to mandate more detail on the way the services will work, expressed in a "real life" way that customers can understand before they are signed up and locked into an agreement. She's thinking of things like average speed at peak times, which services people can use and at what times they are limited and so on. Good luck with that.... it sounds like a nightmare and, like overcomplicated mobile tariffs and T&Cs, a recipe for ongoing customer rage and resentment.
The only bright side here is that it seems unlikely (to me, you may differ) that these business models, no matter how cunning and subtly introduced, will appeal to more than a minority of users. For one thing, unrestricted services on wireline are now getting so cheap, who needs them?
There's no doubt that so far Kroes has pulled off a PR coup. Most of the reporting has her introducing 'net neutrality' regulations when in fact she's doing the opposite... she's really pushing for a greater degree of transparency around internet access terms and conditions so that 'de-neutralised' internet services can be introduced openly. Any complaints after the fact will be invalid because "you should have read the contract properly". Instead of Net Neutrality, Europe is apparently to have Caveat Emptor.
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