A trans-Atlantic definition of net neutrality

by Matthew Lasar, Ars Technica

A coalition of European and United States-based consumer organizations have called for their respective governments to adopt net neutrality-oriented telecommunications policies. "Net neutrality is a state in which users have the freedom to access the content, services, applications, and devices of their choice," resolved the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialog (TACD) in a declaration issued recently. TACD represents 65 groups in Europe and the United States, including Public Knowledge, which helped to produce the document.

"The adoption by an influential organization such as TACD of Net Neutrality principles is a strong indication that consumers around the world are concerned about the dangers of having large communications companies controlling the Internet," declared Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "We commend TACD on taking this bold stand in favor of protecting the Internet."

Significantly, the statement moves the net neutrality movement forward by offering a very clear explanation of the sometimes vaguely defined concept, and one reached by international consensus. The TACD's members include the European Public Health Alliance, the European Consumers Organization, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The case for global net neutrality

The TACD declaration cites a series of incidents as warning signs signaling the need for net neutrality regulation. These include North Carolina telco Madison River's blocking of Vonage VoIP traffic, for which Madison was fined by the Federal Communications Commission in 2006, and anti-union actions of the Canadian ISP Telus, which stopped on-site employee's access to a labor union Web site set up to publicize disputes with the company. The TACD statement might have also noted Canadian ISP Shaw Communications's proposal to charge a CA$10 "quality of service enhancement" tax on VoIP streams.

"Such incidents demonstrate the skewed incentives that result when a network access provider also has a stake in the content and applications accessed by its customers," TACD warns. "When the provider can selectively control access, it may select against speech or services that it perceives as harmful to its self interests." The group also mentions Comcast's recent blocking of BitTorrent traffic and two petitions (Vuze and Free Press) asking for regulation against the practice. "The FCC should act upon these petitions to establish a strong set of network neutrality rules," the statement recommends.
Mapping out a neutral internet

TACD defines a "neutral internet" positively as one in which consumers have three basic rights: to "attach devices of their choice," to provide or access "private content, services, and applications of their choice," and the ability to use these rights without "discrimination according to source, destination, content, or type of application." These rights mean, to TACD, that ISPs cannot block, degrade, prioritize, or discriminate against certain kinds of data, services, applications, or devices.

"National regulators should ensure that ISPs comply with the above mentioned principles by regularly reviewing the practices of ISPs, establishing procedures to receive and act upon any complaints about blocking or degrading access to content or application, and conducting independent testing for blocking, degradation, or other discriminatory action," TACD advises.

But while TACD notes that governments in Europe and the United States "touch upon" net neutrality policy in various ways, they "remain some distance away from taking concrete or thorough action." The document praises Article 22 of the European Union Service Directive, which tries to ensure that all EU country citizens receive fair access to telephone service. But the EU statement does not "directly address the potential for network providers to deliberately degrade quality of service for discriminatory or anticompetitive reasons," TACD complains. "These provisions should specify that national authorities should adopt measures ensuring that providers deliver service that is nondiscriminatory, as well as meeting minimum quality of service requirements."

Although TACD does not mention it, a similar policy vagueness prevails in the United States. In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission passed an Internet Policy Statement declaring that the agency has the "jurisdiction necessary to ensure that providers of telecommunications for Internet access or Internet Protocol-enabled (IP-enabled) services are operated in a neutral manner." But at the same time, FCC Chair Kevin Martin issued a comment insisting that "policy statements do not establish rules nor are they enforceable documents," a remark seized upon by Comcast to argue that the FCC, by its own admission, lacks the jurisdiction necessary to regulate the Internet along net neutrality principles.
Seven net neutrality rules

The TACD document takes on the thorny question of "legitimate network management," defining the practice as guarding against viruses, denial of service attacks, and spam. Significantly, the statement concedes that network management may require the prioritizing of certain kinds of applications, especially those that distribute video or voice services. The threat does not come from prioritizing video over text, TACD observes, but from prioritizing similar Internet protocols and applications over each other. TACD offers an example. "Enforcing net neutrality," the coalition explains, "would prevent a provider from prioritizing one VoIP service's packets over another's in order to benefit one party."

TACD's statement concludes with seven resolutions recommending ways that governments can ensure net neutrality for their citizens. Resolution two calls upon regulators to assess the level of competition available in their respective country; resolution three asks regulators to stop Internet discrimination when it occurs; resolution four calls for full disclosure of ISP network management practices and rates, and resolution six asks governments to ensure that consumers "have recourse to an effective complaint and enforcement mechanism if providers fail to provide service plan information or discriminate unfairly against content, services, applications, or devices."

article originally published at http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080413-atrans-atlantic-definition-of-net-....

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