Digital Single Market
Digital Economy & Society

Net Neutrality challenges

The debate on net neutrality centres mostly around the management of Internet traffic by Internet Service Providers and what constitutes reasonable traffic management.

Traffic management is a tool used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to effectively protect the security and integrity of networks. This tool helps deal with temporary or exceptional congestion or to give effect to a legislative provision or court order. It is also essential for the continuous delivery of certain time-sensitive services such as voice communications or video conferencing that may require prioritisation of traffic for better quality.

However, there is a fragile balance between ensuring the openness of the Internet and the reasonable and responsible use of traffic management by ISPs. Drawing the line between legitimate and unjustified traffic management is challenging.

Blocking and throttling

The blocking and throttling of Peer-to-Peer(P2P) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is the most common example of unacceptable traffic management by operators: around 21% of fixed Internet access subscribers and around 36% of mobile subscriptions (200 million) were affected by restrictions in 2012 (see detailed report).

  • Unfair traffic management practices
    The blocking and throttling (i.e. intentionally slowing down the speed) of P2P services such as file sharing and media streaming; and VoIP services (i.e. Internet telephony) are the most common examples. Other less prevalent instances are restricted access to specific applications such as gaming, streaming, or instant messaging services.
  • Weakening the competition
    The most prominent example of weakening competition is limiting access to VoIP services, as revealed by the traffic management investigation carried out by the Body of European Regulators (BEREC). Indeed, while ISPs provide voice calls through the traditional fixed or mobile networks, cheaper or free VoIP substitutes can be found over the Internet.
  • The decrease of innovation
    Developers of content and applications are likely to reconsider their investments into new applications if there is a risk of ISPs discriminating them. Moreover, excessive restrictions on competing applications might remove the incentive for ISPs to improve and innovate their own products which are challenged by those applications.

Privacy issues

ISPs may use different techniques to improve internet traffic. Some of these techniques may be very intrusive, and even let ISPs know the content of the traffic that passes through their networks.

Depending on the level of intrusion, such techniques may infringe on the principles of data minimisation: accessing personal & identification data as little as possible and proportionality: the action taken should not exceed that which is strictly necessary to achieve the set objectives. Therefore it could be incompatible with EU data protection law, in particular the ePrivacy Directive and the Data Protection Directive. Moreover, the content of communications is protected by the right to confidentiality of correspondence, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 7 and Article 8).

Lack of transparency

  • Regarding traffic management practices
    ISPs tend not to openly publicise information regarding traffic management practices. Such information can most frequently be found only when looking at the detailed terms and conditions of the ISPs' offers. A 2012 report from the UK consumer organisation, Consumer Focus, found that consumers have very limited awareness of the term traffic management.
  • Actual quality of service
    In some cases, consumers are not even aware of the level of quality they can expect from their Internet service, for example possible discrepancies between advertised speeds and actual broadband speeds.

Network congestion

Users' appetite for services and applications which require continuous data exchange keeps growing. Mirroring the market evolution, the traffic conveyed on networks has been increasing continuously. Overall annual IP traffic is estimated by Cisco to triple from 2014 to 2019 and reach 2 zettabytes.

One of the main objectives behind the use of traffic management is the reduction of network congestion resulting from this outstanding growth in data traffic. ISPs commonly apply differential treatment of traffic, in particular during certain times of the day, to ensure that the end user's experience is not disrupted by network congestion.

  • Threats to quality levels
    Certain IP services or applications, like VoIP or video services, require a degree of prioritisation in order to provide a good end-user experience. ISPs have to implement certain quality parameters in their network (e.g. minimising bit rate, latency and error rate).
  • Insufficient levels of fast broadband coverage
    The issue of network congestion is further exacerbated by still insufficient levels of fast broadband coverage in Europe. The target of all European citizens having access to fast broadband (at speeds equal to or higher than 30 Mbps) by 2020 requires further investment efforts with currently only 50% achieved.


Last updated on 27/10/2015 - 09:30