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Netherlands Institutes Net Neutrality Law

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The Netherlands has become the first country in Europe, and the second in the world after Chile, to institute net neutrality provisions

The Netherlands has become the first European country to pass net neutrality legislation, that prevent service providers from blocking or throttling services that run over their networks.

The move follows an attempt last year by network operator KPN to institute charges for third-party applications such as Skype that competed with its own services. The changes were approved by the Dutch senate late on Tuesday, according to the senate’s website. The Netherlands is the second country in the world, after Chile, to pass net neutrality provisions.

Throttling prohibited

The law prohibits operators from blocking or throttling services such as Skype or SMS service WhatsApp, or making their prices dependent on the services used by subscribers.

Operators are allowed some exceptions, and are for instance allowed to throttle traffic to prevent congestion or to protect the integrity and security of the network or users’ systems.

Another obvious exception applies to court orders, allowing sites such as The Pirate Bay to be blocked. In the Nettherlands, as elsewhere, ISPs have opposed such blocks.

The law includes a provision limiting the reasons for which users can have their accounts terminated, a measure applauded by Bits of Freedom, a Dutch digital rights organisation that has campaigned for net neutrality.

“Internet access is very important for functioning in an information society, and providers currently could on the basis of their terms and conditions disconnect their users for numerous reasons,” Bits of Freedom said in a statement, noting that users can be connected in the case of fraud or for failure to pay bills.

The group called the law “crucial legislation to safeguard an open and secure internet in The Netherlands”.

Opposition

Not all industry observers approve of the Netherlands’ legislation, which was criticised in a speech last year by Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda.

She said at the time that competitive markets are the “best way to deliver an open Internet”, and argued member states must take regulatory action based on “facts, not passion”. Ill-informed restrictions on operators could kill innovation or lead to higher prices, Kroes said.

“If we do need to act, we must do so in a coordinated way across Europe,” she said. “I regret very much that the Netherlands seems to be moving unilaterally on this issue.”

Last year the European Union conducted an official investigation of the techniques used by European ISPs to manage network traffic.

Net neutrality is endorsed by campaigners including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited as the inventor of the web.

In March of last year he told ISPs that their plans for a two-tier Internet go against the principal of net neutrality. He said he felt Internet users should have free and open access to all content, and that content providers should also have unrestricted access to customers.

But the ISPs and mobile operators counter this with the argument that it is often necessary to restrict data intensive services at peak times.

For example some ISPs in the UK are known to “throttle” back certain services, such as the BBC iPlayer or even Skype at peak times. ISPs argue that this is necessary to ensure that all their users receive an equal service.

The ISPs and operators essentially argue that they should be allowed to charge heavy bandwidth users such as the BBC and Skype for “fast lane” access to their content. They warn that subscription prices may rise if net neutrality laws are passed.

In January last year BT’s wholesale unit launched a two-tier service that allowed content providers to pay for “first class” content delivery. That service – known as Content Connect – uses Cisco’s Content Delivery System to give priority to certain content, regardless of congestion caused by other traffic outside the Content Connect service.

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