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Net Neutrality In EU Could Be At Risk With Next Week's Vote

Next week, the European Union Parliament will vote on the net neutrality package as well as other telecom regulations. However, according to activists, the new regulations have some major flaws in them, which could lead to Internet providers abusing their power and ultimately hurting Internet users in the EU.

How We Got Here

Back in 2013, it was looking like the EU would be the first to pass strong net neutrality laws, way ahead of the U.S. However, this happened during the mandate of the previous European Commission (EC), where the lead on drafting the net neutrality package was taken by Neelie Kroes, then an EC Vice-President, and a strong digital rights activist.  

Passing the baton to a new European Commission eventually led to a watering down of the initial draft, as the new EC "compromised" with wireless operators in order to abolish roaming fees.

High roaming costs have been a huge issue for a long time in the EU, because they discourage communication across EU countries and citizens. The EU project is meant to create strong unity between the nations, so high roaming fees were antithetical to the whole plan. (Imagine what $0.5/minute costs when calling into another U.S. state would be like.)

However, this used to be a much bigger issue in the past than it is now and will be in the future. More and more people are using data-based communication such as email, instant messengers, and even VOIP calls, which are now integrated into many popular messengers, including Skype, Hangouts, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and so on.

Ten years from now, calling someone from another EU country should be a complete non-issue for everyone, regardless of roaming costs. Therefore, "compromising" by giving a larger degree of control to ISPs and wireless operators over the Internet to get this "win" in free roaming doesn't sound like a great deal.

The future of the Internet is much more important, and the Internet providers know this, which is why they were so willing to (finally) compromise on abolishing roaming fees (they've resisted any price reductions in the past). They know it would be more profitable to have higher control over the Internet than keep the roaming fees, which in ten or so years will be irrelevant anyway.

Four Main Problems

Internet activists are now calling on everyone from the EU to contact their MEPs and urge them to support the amendments that would "fix" the watered down net neutrality legislative package. They see four main problems that need fixing, which could potentially become even worse than currently imagined due to some vague language in the regulation.

Fast Lanes As "Specialized Services"

Potentially allowing fast lanes became a key issue in the U.S., and it's a big reason why the new net neutrality rules were pushed by the FCC. Fast lanes can hurt startups the most, because the Internet providers become gate-keepers that can charge large sums of money for quality service, which only big companies would be able to pay.

The EU is already far behind the U.S., even on its own territories, with large U.S. companies finding more success than local European companies. It wouldn't be a good idea to hurt small EU companies that could one day rise to challenge the big American players.

Although the new net neutrality regulation doesn't specifically allow "fast lanes," it does allow something called "specialized services," which means Internet providers can have dedicated higher-performance lanes but only in certain categories, such as TV, VOIP, connectivity for self-driving cars, and healthcare. However, the language of the net neutrality draft is written in such a way that Internet providers could interpret it to mean they can create all sorts of "specialized services."

Even without that interpretation, it may not be a good idea to allow the creation of dedicated lanes even for those types of services. Although the Internet providers could offer TV on a more reliable lane, they could also invest more in the "regular" lane, so their TV service would work just as well.

Many people already seem content with services such as Netflix, which go over the regular Internet. These users don't even have 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps connections, which are already either very common for the former, or getting installed throughout Europe for the latter.

When more people have 1 Gbps connections within a few years, it may not make sense to allow Internet providers to create dedicated lanes for certain services, especially if that means they will invest less in the regular lane.

The activists organizing the movement to fix this issue in the net neutrality package are asking the EU Parliament to at least "clarify the criteria defining specialised services to disallow discrimination on the network."

Zero-Rating

Zero-rating, also called "positive discrimination" by the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, could be allowed under the latest net neutrality proposal. Zero-rating, or not counting data usage against a user's data plan for a certain service, is discriminatory against companies that can't make the same kind of deal with the Internet providers, whether it's because they can't afford it or simply because the provider isn't interested in doing the deal with that service.

This once again makes the Internet provider a gate-keeper on the Internet for the services that people should access most. People in general are attracted by free-to-use services, so they would have an incentive to use the service that is zero-rated rather than its competitors. This leads to monopolies in the long-term, which is also a bad thing for normal Internet users.

The activists believe the Parliament should "add a provision to enable member states to ban the anti-competitive, discriminatory practices" in order to fix this glaring issue in the net neutrality package.

Class-Based Discrimination

One of the most dangerous proposals in the net neutrality draft is allowing Internet providers to define "classes" of content, which they could speed up or slow down at will, even when there is no congestion.

This is dangerous because the Internet providers could decide to throttle certain types of traffic such as encrypted traffic (which they may not like because they want to inject trackers into the users' streams), VPN traffic (also encrypted, but they may throttle it for geo-location/anti-piracy reasons), and also certain types of P2P traffic, which may or may not be legal, but they could throttle so there isn't so much "redundant" data exchanges on the network (which is common with P2P traffic).

If they identify the source of certain traffic, they could also throttle VOIP calls, especially if problem #1 isn't fixed, where they'll be allowed to create their own dedicated VOIP lanes and then would have an incentive to throttle competitors.

In the end, any of this will end up harming competition and Internet users by creating a worse experience for them for certain types of Internet services or applications that they use.

The activists want the Parliament to "modify the provisions on traffic management to ensure equal treatment of traffic. Traffic management should be transparent, targeted and in accordance with the law."

Managing “Impending" Congestion

This final major problem is what makes the previous problem much worse. The network management provisions are defined so that extreme measures such as throttling certain types of traffic are only taken when there is congestion on the network.

However, the net neutrality package contains language that allows the Internet providers to use the same tools they would use during a time of congestion when there is "impending congestion," as well. This is in danger of being interpreted as "almost anytime." The providers could start throttling certain classes of traffic so that they "never" have to run into the congestion problem in the first place.

The problem with this is once again discrimination. These tools shouldn't be used unless there's actual congestion. Most of the time, their customers should be free to use whatever services they like at the maximum speed and bandwidth provided by the Internet providers.

The activists demand that the EU Parliament "clarify the rules for managing congestion to prevent ISPs from interfering with the network for a discriminatory reason."

Next week, the net neutrality package will be up for vote. The package will likely pass "as-is" unless EU citizens start complaining about these issues by contacting their MEPs and asking them to vote for the amendments that the activists proposed to fix these four main problems.

If there are many amendments that pass, members of the Parliament and the EU Council (prime ministers) will have to negotiate and reach a compromise, after which there will be another vote in six weeks. The final compromise will have to be adopted by both the Parliament and the Council, so the more people express their opinions now, the higher the chance a stronger net neutrality regulation will be adopted in the EU.

______________________________________________________________________

Lucian Armasu joined Tom’s Hardware in early 2014. He writes news stories on mobile, chipsets, security, privacy, and anything else that might be of interest to him from the technology world. Outside of Tom’s Hardware, he dreams of becoming an entrepreneur.

You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • InvalidError
    Network Neutrality sounds nice in theory but it has its downsides as well: some types of services, such as VoIP and competitive gaming, can genuinely benefit from special treatment. Similarly, the IP protocol has provisions for managed QoS and congestion which people and applications could also benefit from if ISPs implemented proper support for them.

    Preventing service providers from experimenting with such new opportunities in the name of network neutrality may ultimately turn into a disservice.

    For example: with real DiffServ QoS, you can floor your connection 24/7 and never worry about running out of bandwidth for VoIP because your VoIP stream has a real-time priority QoS tagging which makes it jump the queue through the network on hops that (try to) honor QoS tags. No need to do ghetto-QoS by reserving a chunk of your typical net bandwidth to make sure you always have at least that much spare bandwidth - at least to the best of your ability from your end of the network.

    Under strict NN rules, such service enhancements which would come a long way towards stabilizing the performance of certain applications during times of heavy network loads become impossible. Seems like it would be a shame to me.

    NN rules may restrict the extent to which "fast lanes", special services, sender-paid/sponsored bandwidth, congestion management, etc. can be used but they should not ban them outright since many of them have very practical legitimate uses.
    Reply
  • skit75
    ....Just like toll lanes improve automobile traffic?

    Oversimplifying, you bet. The toll lanes sounded good in theory and study after study says they have only made traffic worse, evidenced by 6 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic on the 405 or 110 while two full lanes go nearly unused.

    Let the fast lane proponents fund and build their own lanes if that is what they want. Keep the ISP out of it. We need all of our lanes even if we don't use all of them, all of the time. When we need them, we REALLY need them.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16830913 said:
    Let the fast lane proponents fund and build their own lanes if that is what they want. Keep the ISP out of it. We need all of our lanes even if we don't use all of them, all of the time. When we need them, we REALLY need them.
    The proper way to go about it would be to have companies, ISPs, service providers and other network operators who want fast lanes to build them but then require them to make whatever under-used capacity there is on it available for all other traffic. This way, the prioritized/fast-lane traffic is always fast and other lanes get some relief when the fast lanes are not full. This way, even the "toll lanes" get packed during rush hours and people who paid for the toll lanes still get to spare their brakes.
    Reply
  • 3dhoc
    The "fast lanes" sound nice in theory, but are they really needed? I've got just a DSL connection and stuff works JUST FINE. Plus, letting the government decide anything about our information during such political crisis is a bad idea. In the end, the ISPs probably just figured that they are too lazy to actually try offer such a service and went directly for the parliament to FORCE us in such a service. If I want fast lanes, I want it to be in my contract. I paid for a plain connection that should allow all services to work. Instead of wasting our time on QoS we should be researching and installing new lanes... QoS was created during the times of modems and barely makes sense now, except for specialized scenarios. At my home I do not want it, do not need it.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16832229 said:
    Instead of wasting our time on QoS we should be researching and installing new lanes... QoS was created during the times of modems and barely makes sense now, except for specialized scenarios.
    QoS capabilities are already built into all network equipment more advanced than SOHO router and switch. It has been used by networks and service providers for to guarantee the performance of certain traffic, such as phone calls, over mixed networks for decades in one form or another.

    Adding capacity is not enough to guarantee the performance of a timing-critical stream over the internet: internet traffic comes and goes in bursts. It is impossible to guarantee that no buffers anywhere between A and B won't get backed up by a burst even if you have 10X more capacity than normally needed. It only takes a few milliseconds of jitter to severely degrade the quality of a VoIP call.

    Brute force can only get you so far and gets real expensive real fast. With QoS, networks could work smarter instead of harder.

    QoS is not really that specialized: if you have FTTH, the service provider relies on QoS to make IPTV, voice and data play nice on the shared fiber. Without QoS on the fiber, they would be unable to guarantee POTS-equivalent call quality.
    Reply
  • 3dhoc
    NOTE: Tom's, the commenting usability is abysmal. I just double-posted while being totally blinded by the wind from scrolling around while looking for buttons to do simple things.

    Now, I know the technicalities. Still, thanks for the Informatics lesson. IPTV you say? Are you serious? I want all my streams encrypted. QoS only works if packets can be analyzed. This legislation is scary, because it would allow my privacy to be de-prioritized amongst various other dumb services. The parliament is wasting our time and money.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16833634 said:
    I want all my streams encrypted. QoS only works if packets can be analyzed. This legislation is scary, because it would allow my privacy to be de-prioritized amongst various other dumb services.
    DiffServ QoS does not need to know anything about your packets other than the QoS field in the IP headers and (optionally) source/destination IPs if the network needs to enforce use of a specific QoS tag for a specific service or source/destination. Everything QoS-based forwarding absolutely needs is part of the basic IP headers. In older versions of the IPv4 header definition, it used to be called Differentiated Service Code Point or DSCP.

    How do you do blind QoS? You assign bit buckets, peak and sustained data rates and a priority level to each supported QoS tag (managed switches, enterprise/carrier-grade routers and converged network modems/ONTs already have all of this built-in) and then all you need to do is tell your application to set the DiffServ field to the appropriate value. For networks that follow the recommended DiffServ definitions, VoIP traffic for example would typically be tagged with code 46 (x2E) which should correspond to Expedited Forwarding. If you ever configured a VoIP device, you may have noticed an option to set the DiffServ field that defaults to 46, that's what it is for.

    If you try pushing more bits through a given QoS channel than what you or your upstream provider(s) paid your ISP for and your ISP set your limits at, your QoS bit bucket for that QoS tag dries up and congests, preventing you from using the QoS channel for anything that uses more bandwidth than what it has been provided and intended for. You can VPN through your 200kbps VoIP QoS channel all day if you want.
    Reply
  • Sakkura
    The author doesn't seem to be aware that roaming applies to data as well as calls. Data roaming will remain important, in fact it will become a bigger issue over time.
    Reply
  • QSV
    Network Neutrality sounds nice in theory but it has its downsides as well: some types of services, such as VoIP and competitive gaming, can genuinely benefit from special treatment. Similarly, the IP protocol has provisions for managed QoS and congestion which people and applications could also benefit from if ISPs implemented proper support for them.

    Preventing service providers from experimenting with such new opportunities in the name of network neutrality may ultimately turn into a disservice.

    For example: with real DiffServ QoS, you can floor your connection 24/7 and never worry about running out of bandwidth for VoIP because your VoIP stream has a real-time priority QoS tagging which makes it jump the queue through the network on hops that (try to) honor QoS tags. No need to do ghetto-QoS by reserving a chunk of your typical net bandwidth to make sure you always have at least that much spare bandwidth - at least to the best of your ability from your end of the network.

    Under strict NN rules, such service enhancements which would come a long way towards stabilizing the performance of certain applications during times of heavy network loads become impossible. Seems like it would be a shame to me.

    NN rules may restrict the extent to which "fast lanes", special services, sender-paid/sponsored bandwidth, congestion management, etc. can be used but they should not ban them outright since many of them have very practical legitimate uses.

    Its funny how few people really understand net neutrality. Even here. Its really simple: It means that it is as fast as possible in any case, no matter what you do with your connection. Youre starting at a base that has no net neutrality!
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16837500 said:
    Its really simple: It means that it is as fast as possible in any case, no matter what you do with your connection.
    Being fast is one thing, being predictably and reliably fast are another.

    Even with a proper DiffServ PHB setup, you still need 3-5X the QoS'd bandwidth to guarantee with reasonable certainty that there won't be much priority traffic backlogs (buffering) when packets from multiple QoS'd streams try to cross the same links between routers at the same time.

    Building the whole internet in such a way that all traffic can be treated as priority would be prohibitively expensive.
    Reply