The common theme underlying the various definitions of net neutrality is that companies offering internet services should treat all web traffic equally, regardless of the content type or origin and should not block, degrade or charge for any lawful content. This article provides a summary of recent regulatory developments in net neutrality in both the US and the EU, where changing consumer behaviours regarding content over the Internet are putting pressures on the ability of stakeholders to maintain the principles of net neutrality.

FCC vote on net neutrality regulation in the US

The common theme underlying the various definitions of net neutrality is that companies offering internet services should treat all web traffic equally, regardless of the content type or origin and should not block, degrade or charge for any lawful content. This article provides a summary of recent regulatory developments in net neutrality in both the US and the EU, where changing consumer behaviours regarding content over the Internet are putting pressures on the ability of stakeholders to maintain the principles of net neutrality.

In December 2010, the US Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") voted in favour of the principle of net neutrality and passed three high-level rules aimed at upholding that principle: transparency; no blocking; and no unreasonable discrimination.

The first rule passed applies to both fixed and mobile operators and requires them to be transparent in how they manage and operate their networks.

The second rule prohibits the blocking of traffic on the Internet and applies to both fixed broadband network operators as well as to mobile operators. However, the details of the rule are slightly different for each type of network.

The third rule applies only to fixed broadband providers and prohibits those providers from unreasonably discriminating against traffic on their network.

The vote has drawn criticism from both sides of the debate because it distinguishes between fixed and mobile operators. In addition, the FCC's legal authority for enforcing the new rules is also uncertain and, in January 2011, Verizon filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of the FCC to impose the new rules.

The FCC press release is available to view here.

EU Commission's view on net neutrality in Europe

Throughout 2010, the European Commission also consulted on the issue of net neutrality in Europe. According to the results of their consultation, which were published by the Commission towards the end of the year, there is near consensus throughout Europe on the importance of preserving the openness of the Internet.

A total of 318 stakeholders responded to the consultation, including regulators, ISPs, operators and individuals. In general, the Commission reported that the majority of respondents believed that the revised EU Communications Framework provided the basic legislative tools necessary for dealing with net neutrality issues without any need for further EU regulation. However, the effectiveness of this framework will need to be assessed further once it has been implemented into national law by all Member States in May this year.

The respondents also understood that traffic management is a necessary and essential part of operating a secure and efficient network, although some respondents expressed a concern over potential abuse of traffic management policies. ISPs often use traffic management techniques to try and maintain quality of service. For example, an ISP might reduce the bandwidth available to a particular high capacity user so that other users' quality of service does not suffer. Many respondents understood the need for managing traffic based on quality of service considerations. However, commercially motivated traffic management (e.g. an ISP giving a better service to its own content service)raises concerns about net neutrality.

There was also support amongst the majority of the respondents for industry-wide standards on transparency around traffic management policies to enable consumers to make informed choices.

The full text of the report can be accessed here.

UK Government's views on net neutrality in the UK

In the UK, Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, gave a speech at the FT World Telecoms Conference in November 2010 where he discussed the UK Government's current view on the net neutrality debate.

The content of the speech suggested that the UK Government does not intend to legislate or regulate net neutrality or Internet traffic management, except to the extent required to implement the amendments to the EU Communications Framework.

Mr Vaizey also stressed the importance of transparency and ensuring that traffic management policies are transparent to consumers, whilst still allowing ISPs to manage their networks to ensure a good service, which will in its turn encourage investment and innovation.

A transcript of the speech is available here.