Isn’t it annoying when the YouTube video you’re watching just stops loading right in the middle? Or when your Skype connection suddenly starts sucking in the middle of a video conversation?

Well, it turns out that in Europe, sometimes stuff like that doesn’t happen accidentally. Internet Service Providers intentionally “throttle” certain kinds of web traffic.

The European Union is sick of this. On Tuesday, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda threatened new legislation and public humiliation for companies that don’t allow consumers easy access to a free and open Internet. That’s right, kids; the net neutrality debate is hot in Europe, too….

Ars Technica reports:

European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, once known for hammering Microsoft during its European antitrust lawsuit, says she will personally keep an eye on any Internet problems that might arise from blocking, throttling, or lying about actual connection speeds. If problems arise that can’t be solved simply by switching ISPs, Kroes says she’s ready to legislate.
In the meantime, she plans to shame ISPs into good behavior.

A European Commission report released the day before her speech said ISPs in France, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom have all allegedly throttled traffic related to streaming video or file-sharing.

It’s significant that Kroes suggested more rules might be necessary. To date, Europe has surprisingly remained more legislatively hands-off than the U.S. with respect to net neutrality. The EC has taken the position that competition is the best way to keep the Internet open.

Strangely, different news outlets took totally different angles on Kroes’s speech. Ars Technica and Reuters said she is “threatening” more regulation and that the European policy is likely to change.

But the New York Times, similar to the Wall Street Journal, reported that Kroes ordered a review but is “unconvinced that a serious problem exist[s].”

Also, this is all happening a month before Europe’s beefy new telecom law takes effect on May 25. That law does not deal expressly with net neutrality.

From the transcript of Kroes’s speech:

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.

In a shocking (read: not shocking at all) response to Kroes, the companies that stand to get burned said the imposition of more rules is a bad idea. From the Reuters article:

The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, whose members include Telefonica, Orange and Telecom Italia, pointed to the risks of more rules.

“In highly competitive markets for fixed and mobile broadband, any further regulation that would restrict traffic management and service differentiation would undermine Europe’s digital economy and hamper innovation,” ETNO chairman Luigi Gambardella said in a statement.

For those of you who couldn’t care less about what those crazy Europeans are up to, our country has plenty of its own net neutrality worries.

The throttling (anyone else think that word is fun to say?) issue is more under control on this side of the pond. In December, the Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality rules, which expressly forbid Internet companies in the U.S. from blocking their customers’ access to websites or certain kinds of traffic. Theoretically, the rules ensure that AT&T would never prevent you from conducting your cross-ex via Skype.

Then again, the House of Representatives voted to overturn those rules earlier this month. Oh yeah, and the FCC had already passed a previous set of net neutrality rules, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit shot them down in April 2010. The court unanimously ruled that the FCC had no authority to regulate the way Comcast or Xfinity or whatever it’s called manages its web traffic.

So… basically it’s a mess here too. Hopefully someone finds a solution soon, before our ISPs decide to block everything on the Internet but this video of a cat playing in boxes.


Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at cdanzig@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.


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