Net Neutrality

BEREC Heeds Net Neutrality's Spurious Call to Arms

In the aftermath of this year's "Brexit" referendum, which saw Britons vote in favor of leaving the European Union (EU), reporters decamped to the some of the downtrodden communities from which Brexiteers had drawn their most ardent support. "Let's take back control," croaked upbeat, old-age xenophobes in the northern town of Middlesbrough, mindlessly parroting the Brexit campaign's mendacious slogan. (See Brexit: It's Hard to See an Upside.)

"Save the Internet" might just be the tech industry equivalent for sheer idiocy. Coined by the most zealous supporters of net neutrality -- who seem to view the Internet as one big hippy commune -- it is another spurious call to arms to ward off an imaginary danger. And just as irrational fears about a loss of British sovereignty colored the Brexit debate, so claims that the Internet is imperiled are poisoning discussions about net neutrality.

"Save the Internet" campaigners, including organizations such as European Digital Rights and the World Wide Web Foundation, have reared their ugly heads this week in a sycophantic response to the latest proclamation from Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) , a regulatory group that advises the European Commission (EC). Having published draft guidelines for net neutrality regulation back in June, BEREC put the finishing touches to its edict on August 30. Net neutrality fanatics are delighted.

That's because BEREC, in its final report, has come down heavily on the side of net neutrality, envisaging an Internet utopia in which all Web traffic is treated equally (and the animals do not take over the farm). The prevailing opinion is that BEREC has addressed the ambiguities in its draft report, making it nigh impossible for scheming operators to find loopholes in the rules. In reality, uncertainties will persist, and lawyers will have a field day assessing alleged infringements on a case-by-case basis.

Anyone who doubts that need only glance through BEREC's paperwork. Rules prohibit operators from blocking, throttling or discriminating against Internet traffic. Accordingly, a telco cannot give a quality-of-service leg-up to its own Internet telephony or TV offering while denying the same treatment to Web rivals. It can, however, provide "specialized services" that do not interfere with humdrum Internet access. But what does this mean in practice?

Net neutrality activists seem chuffed that BEREC has tightened up the definition of "specialized services" since its draft report to guard against unsporting behavior. Yet the details remain scanty. In its August guidelines, BEREC provides only three concrete examples of specialized services -- VoLTE, IPTV and remote surgery. A footnote makes a cursory reference to "network slicing," which would allow an operator to provide a range of network services over a single 5G system and is deemed critical to the 5G business case. If BEREC has devoted much thought to network slicing, it has kept its deliberations to itself. (See 5G Calls for EU Rethink on Net Neutrality, Net Neutrality Rules Threaten 5G, NFV – Telenor and 5G: Hurdles on the Track.)

By page 27 of the 45-page document, BEREC has essentially acknowledged its failure to get a firm grasp on such a slippery concept. "Given that we do not know what specialized services may emerge in the future, NRAs [national regulatory authorities] should assess whether a service qualifies as a specialized service on a case-by-case basis [my italics]." The lawyers must be queuing up already.

BEREC's appraisal of "zero rating" is even more evasive. Egged on by Internet giants like Facebook , a number of emerging-market operators have allowed customers to access some Internet sites entirely free of charge but continued to apply normal data-usage fees for other content. The practice has generated outrage in India and proven controversial elsewhere. Yet despite winning praise from net neutrality advocates, BEREC equivocates. "[A] comprehensive assessment of… commercial and technical conditions may be required," says the association, before launching into a bullet-pointed explanation of possible next steps. (See Facebook in Africa: Beauty or Beast? and DoT Pushes for Net Neutrality in India .)

Next page: False prophets

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