May 24, 2024

E.U. to Review Mobile Operators’ Policies on Web Access

BERLIN — The European Commission is planning to investigate whether European mobile operators are managing wireless Internet traffic to discriminate against competitors or consumers who use data-intensive services.

Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s telecommunications commissioner, on Tuesday will ask an advisory panel of national regulators to examine whether mobile operators are upholding the principle of network neutrality, which calls for all data traffic to be treated equally.

In a 10-page summary of remarks she intends to present in Brussels, which was obtained by the International Herald Tribune, Ms. Kroes said she was so far unconvinced that a serious problem existed or that new legal consumer safeguards were needed.

Referring to consumer complaints over blocking or throttling of certain types of mobile Internet use, Ms. Kroes, in her prepared remarks, said, “The commission does not have evidence to conclude that these concerns are justified at this stage but should be borne in mind in a more exhaustive, fact-finding exercise.”

Advocates of network neutrality criticized the inquiry as insufficient, saying that the fact-finding mission was superfluous and ignored obvious, continuing problems with the mobile Internet. Operators, for example, do not connect Skype calls over their networks because the Internet calling company’s services would siphon revenue from their own businesses.

“The European Union appears to be alone in the developed world in tolerating on such a wide scale these types of arbitrary restrictions on Internet use,” said Jean-Jacques Sahel, the director of government and regulatory affairs for Skype in London. “It has to cease and we look to European authorities to unambiguously protect consumers.”

The review will ask regulators from E.U. member states to examine whether a European telecommunications law that takes effect on May 25 is sufficient to ensure an open Internet. The law requires operators to disclose traffic management practices to consumers, gives consumers the right to switch operators in a single day and gives national regulators the power to set minimum levels of service for mobile Internet operators.

Lawmakers in Europe, unlike those in the United States, have taken a relatively hands-off approach to network neutrality, allowing the Continent’s mobile operators, which are typically former national monopolies, to manage and prioritize data to ensure smooth flowing traffic.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission last year adopted network neutrality rules that forbid operators to block content on their networks. But the commission’s legal authority has been questioned, and the U.S. House of Representatives voted on April 8 to restrict the F.C.C.’s ability to manage operator practices.

In Europe, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers debated network neutrality in 2009 and amended telecommunications laws to enshrine the concept as a fundamental right, but imposed only weak restrictions on operators. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, an advisory panel of 27 E.U. national regulators, will examine whether the new law safeguards consumers.

Luigi Gambardella, the chairman of the European Network Operators’ Association, which is based in Brussels and represents mobile operators, said his group supported Mrs. Kroes’s view that “any additional regulation should avoid deterring investment, or innovative business models, leading to a more efficient use of the networks and creating new business opportunities.”

John Phelan, a spokesman for the European Consumers’ Organization, a Brussels group, said Mrs. Kroes’s fact-finding mission overlooked a wealth of evidence that European operators were discriminating against rival services and high-volume mobile users.

Mr. Phelan pointed to a new network neutrality law adopted this year in Norway, a country that is not a member of the European Union, which was supposed to protect consumers from discriminatory treatment by mobile operators. The new rules have had no effect on the market leader, Telenor, and other operators, which continue to downgrade or block traffic from commercial rivals, he said.

“We think the approach Ms. Kroes is choosing is a missed opportunity,” Mr. Phelan said. “There is plenty of evidence that a problem exists and that we need strong action. This soft approach to the issue is not producing the necessary result.”

The panel of regulators, Berec, will not complete its work until the end of the year. Ms. Kroes would not propose new regulations, if any, until 2012.

Copies of her prepared remarks were circulated over the weekend.

“Judging from what we’ve seen of her report so far, it appears that Mrs. Kroes is not even convinced there is a problem,” said Jérémie Zimmermann, a spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, a French group that opposes restrictions to the Internet.

Last week in Paris, a bipartisan, 86-page report by three members of the French Parliament criticized the data traffic management practices of Frence mobile operators and recommended new consumer safeguards be adopted.

Mr. Zimmermann said all three French mobile operators, Orange, SFR and Bouyges Telecom, continued to ban competing Internet voice services like Skype.

But even in France, which was the first European country last year to systematically police and fine Internet users for illegal downloads of copyrighted films, music and other forms of entertainment, new pro-consumer legislation is not guaranteed.

“I am not certain that the French report will lead to any concrete action to protect consumers,” Mr. Zimmermann said.

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