Government u-turn on net neutrality means two-tier web
Did our Government just help to wound net neutrality?
Last week, the European Commission announced a compromise on net neutrality that will see "specialised services" such as internet television allowed in new prioritised fast lanes.
The move means that mobile and broadband providers may now start to allocate faster web access to individual companies on certain services, meaning that small firms with little cash or clout may not be able to compete.
For the Irish government, it's something of a turnaround. Last year, data minister Dara Murphy said that Ireland would not support a system that created "internet fast tracks for those who can afford to pay".
Unfortunately, for Irish startups such as BalconyTV that compete with giants such as YouTube and Netflix, that may be exactly what is unfolding.
It is starting to look like big operators - through the handful of sympathetic European governments they lobby - have linked the abolition of mobile roaming charges to an easing in of net neutrality rules. If so, it's a smart move on their part: most of the public will simply look to the end of roaming fees and not be too concerned about vague network protocols.
And yet net neutrality matters a lot. It means that our broadband services aren't carved up between a handful of huge corporate companies, leaving little chance for disruptive startups.
The European Commission's new position on net neutrality leaves much to be clarified.
"It is important to have future proof rules which, while fully safeguarding the open internet, allow market operators to provide services with specific quality requirements in order to provide them in safe manner," says its new guidance fact sheet on the issue.
Telecoms operators, it says, will be facilitated in "making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized".
"These innovative services may only be offered where optimised quality is necessary for their requirements and if sufficient capacity for Internet access remains available… The rules will ensure that the quality of the open Internet access service will not be hampered by the provision of services such as internet TV or telemedicine which share the same infrastructure."
It does specifically say that "paid prioritisation" is outside the rules. But it does not back that up with any meaningful sanction list. And it then goes on to say that 'zero rating' will be allowed.
Zero rating is a process by which a company like WhatsApp can pay an operator to give mobile customers unlimited access to its service without using up any monthly data limit.
Zero rating, says the Commission, "can promote a wider variety of offers for price-sensitive users, give them interesting deals, and encourage them to use digital services".
This will be music to the ears of telecoms operators. In Ireland, zero rating has already started. The subsidiary of 3 Ireland, 48, has started a zero rated option whereby one third party company (WhatsApp) will have unlimited usage outside 48's normal monthly data limits.
"Data usage incurred using WhatsApp's messaging service will not be deducted from customers' data allowance," said a spokeswoman for the company. "This includes all messages sent and received through the app, inclusive of photos, emojis, audio clips and videos to and from single contacts and within groups."
This clearly means that WhatsApp is now at a distinct advantage over, say, Viber or Skype, for customers of 48. Whether or not WhatsApp have actually paid for this deal, the general hope for operators must be that they can develop a new income stream from 'partnerships' with such huge internet services.
Operators feel that this is morally justified as internet services such as YouTube, Facebook and Netflix have been getting a 'free ride' on their networks for years.
But for ordinary users, it could be a slippery slope to a new two-tier internet, where the services you get access to are increasingly the ones who pay the broadband or mobile operator.
In its guidance fact sheet, the European Commission makes an attempt to acknowledge this threat.
"We have to make sure that commercial practices benefit users and do not in practice lead to situations where end-users' choice is significantly reduced," it says.
"Regulatory authorities will therefore have to monitor and ensure compliance with the rules."
As consumer guarantees go, that is very weak.
And it now incontrovertibly makes Europe weaker on net neutrality than the US, which recently hardened its rules on the issue.
To be fair, net neutrality is not a black-and-white issue. There are a hundred different choices that telecoms operators have to make every day that influence the speed or access quality that an end user will get.
Some of these choices are already commercially linked. And operators will argue, with some justification, that networks are an expensive business, made much more so by the emergence of data-guzzling internet video services.
Furthermore, there is genuine merit in having prioritised access lanes for emergency services other critical utilities.
But we need to have clear rules. If we are to allow new paid-for internet access lanes, let us call them for what they are.
Let's not preach 'net neutrality' while preparing for a two-tier internet.