All bits are equal?

Does all data on the internet have to be treated equally? The term “net neutrality” is the subject of heated arguments. It is time for an informed and objective debate.

The EU Commission’s legislative proposal 2013/627 “Laying down measures concerning the European single market for electronic communications and to achieve a Connected Continent, and amending Directives 2002/20/EC, 2002/21/EC and 2002/22/EC and Regulations (EC) No 1211/2009 and (EU) No 531/2012” has a somewhat cumbersome title. It has, however, sparked emotional debates about European digital policy over the last two years. This is because Article 23 of the draft law includes proposals for the regulation of net neutrality.

What does net neutrality mean?

The term “net neutrality” has not been definitively defined. Some people understand it to mean internet users’ right to access all legally permissible information and content on the net and to use the applications and services of their choice. Defined more precisely, net neutrality describes a technical approach, whereby all data on the internet is transferred in the same quality, irrespective of sender, recipient or content. Data and services are thus transferred “neutrally”, irrespective of any potential special requirements, as quickly and as best as possible with the available resources (“best-effort” delivery).  

What are the arguments about?

There are disagreements on how strictly to apply the equal treatment principle to data packets. And on how to deal with the fact that networks are sometimes congested. Advocates of strict net neutrality fear that the internet will change if so-called special services that guarantee a minimum internet quality (with regard to transfer rate, reaction speed or reliability) are allowed. They argue that the internet’s dynamics and potential for innovation will be lost if some are able to transmit their data through the net “better” than others. Others say that the internet is getting fuller and fuller. The internet is already reaching its limit when it comes to video streaming, video conferences and online gaming. In the age of Internet 4.0, industry is connected to the network with its products and processes. This isn’t going to help to reduce data traffic. It will instead push it to new heights. The networks cannot be expanded fast enough. In Germany alone, a nationwide expansion of the fibre optic network would cost around 100 billion euros. In the future, there will be real-time services in the business world that will not function properly if data transfer is not fast and secure. But if it is not possible to offer such services, the internet will lose its potential for innovation.

What does industry want?

German industry aims for a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” solution. It is committed to best-effort internet. A deliberate obstruction of content and unjustified discrimination and non-transparency must not be allowed to take place in any way. However, a differentiated management of data on the internet that gives some data priority over others does not conflict with this view. The prime objectives must therefore include ensuring freedom of choice for consumers and commercial clients, strengthening the internet’s transparency and innovative capacity, and optimising the use of the broadband infrastructure.