Online Liberty Tested in France
Free had implemented ad-blocking software during an early year upgrade of its customers' broadband routers, a move that prevented some adverts being loaded onto Web pages requested by its customers. The use of ad-blocking software is common, but it is normally implemented by individuals who choose to deploy the relevant software on their devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) rather than deployed carte blanche by a service provider.
The move, which not only represented a challenge to Internet liberty but also potentially prevented the delivery of local digital advertising on behalf of French firms, not surprisingly proved controversial. French regulator ARCEP issued a statement that questioned the legality of implementing default content-blocking software and sent a letter to Free asking for an explanation.
Then, as this BBC report explains, France's minister for the digital economy, Fleur Pellerin, stepped in and persuaded Free to restore full access to all online content. At least for now.
There seems little doubt that Free, which has also built up a sizable mobile business during the past year (4.4 million mobile customers at the end of September), is testing the waters. Xavier Niel, the key shareholder and deputy chairman of Iliad, has noted previously that Google traffic fills up Free's network on occasion and has reportedly questioned why over-the-top content providers such as Google should be able to use service provider infrastructure to build a business without contributing to the upkeep of the networks, so this move appears to be a shot across the bows of Web services firms.
Free's move follows a peering dispute between France Télécom – Orange and IP backbone operator Cogent Communications Group Inc. France Télécom wants to charge Cogent for the additional capacity required on the French operator's network to accept data traffic being delivered into France by Cogent, which counts Google amongst its customers.
The French competition authorities initially concluded that France Télécom is within its rights to request such payments because of the imbalance of traffic between the two operators, noting that the case is "currently a focus for discussion in the context of the Internet neutrality debate." At present it seems the French incumbent is not willing to increase the bandwidth at its interconnection point with Cogent without compensation.
The French operator's customers look likely to suffer as a result of the current stalemate: As the volume of online content requested by French users increases, the delivery of that content onto France Télécom's network will slow down and end user service quality will be affected.
It seems France is becoming the test market for the net neutrality struggle between the telcos and the Web services firms. But it's a risky game for the network operators to play: If customers find their services are being disrupted in any way, the urge to switch providers will grow.
— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading