The Netherlands has become the first country in Europe to enshrine the concept of net neutrality in national law. Bits of Freedom, a Dutch digital rights movement has been campaigning for this law, and considers it “a historical moment for internet freedom in The Netherlands and calls on other countries to follow the Dutch example.”
The issue came to a head last year when major telecomms providers said they would charge extra for customers who used VoIP for their telephony. The public objected and the Dutch parliament reacted – with three proposals that are now law. Firstly, the net neutrality content prohibits providers from interfering with customers’ traffic. Traffic management can be used solely for congestion and security, provided that it serves the interest of the user.
Secondly, deep packet inspection (DPI) by the ISPs is prohibited other than in limited circumstances such as a court order or with the approval of the user (which may be withdrawn at any time). DPI became an issue when telecomms company KPN admitted it had used it to discover which customers were using which applications – such as VoIP.
Thirdly, users’ interconnect connections are now better protected. ISPs’ standard terms and conditions allowing multiple justification for disconnection have been restricted to reasons such as fraud or failure to pay for the service.
Welcomed by civil liberties groups, and seen as a response by politicians to public demand, the Dutch net neutrality provisions are not without critics in Europe. Back in October last year, ZDNet quoted Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda, as saying, “I regret very much that the Netherlands seems to be moving unilaterally on this issue. We must act on the basis of facts, not passion; acting quickly and without reflection can be counterproductive.” The EU’s official stance on the issue claims to support net neutrality; but it is very different in detail to that now found in The Netherlands. “Ultimately,” she said in a speech in Kenya (27 September 2011), “different actors have different fields of expertise and responsibility: that must be respected, and due weight must be given accordingly.”
This is very different to the definition provided by Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor in an Opinion published in October (which is much closer to the Dutch model): “The concept of net neutrality builds on the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source, and that users should be able to decide what applications, services and hardware they want to use. This means that ISPs cannot, at their own choice, prioritise or slow down access to certain applications or services such as Peer to Peer (‘P2P’), etc.”