France moves towards 'web neutrality' law

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The notion of web neutrality is one whereby all access to the internet, and the very process of activity on the internet, is treated equally. It has become the subject of passionate international debate while service providers increasingly control, prioritize and even block certain forms of access and services, and government agencies are empowered to interfere in access to, and the functioning of, websites. Vincent Truffy reports on how France is moving towards legislation to define and ensure a neutral, non-prioritised web for all.

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"It's such an empowering thing to be connected at highspeed and without borders that it's become a human right", commented Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, in an interview this week with the BBC. He is one of a growing movement pushingthe notion of web neutrality, whereby all access to the internet, and the process of activity on the internet, is treated equally.

That is not currently the case, while Internet Service Providers (ISPs) prioritize, and in some cases even block, certain forms of access and services, and while government agencies are empowered to interfere in access and the functioning ofwebsites. EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes this week delivered a report on the subject, largely settling for the establishment of a voluntary code of neutrality by the internet industry itself.

But while Berners-Lee agreed that this was preferable, he raised the option that legislation should be established to ensure it, a topic that is the subject of passionate debate in the US.

Legislation is precisely what France has been studying for the past year, and aparliamentary report released also this month argues how and why a law must be established to ensure a neutral, non-prioritised web for all. Vincent Truffy reports.

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The neutrality of networks is a relatively new idea. Since 2003 it's been popularised by a professor at Columbia University in New York, Tim Wu. His mantra: "Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally." But the principle itself is the very essence of the internet; a cable doesn't care what it carries, where it comes from or where the content is going.

The French postal and telecommunications code thus guarantees that "the operators of electronic communications respect the confidentiality of correspondence and the principle of neutrality towards the content of the messages transmitted, as well as protecting personal data". Yet in the last few years this right has been eroded away to the extent that it has been necessary to remind people more formally of the principle.

Debates, round tables and conferences took place on the subject in France in 2010. There was even a proposal by the opposition Socialist Party for a new law, which was roundly rejected. OnWednesday April 13th a report by a National Assembly (French parliament) fact-finding mission on the neutrality of the internet completed the series of discussions.

In the draft legislation put forward in December, the socialist Member of Parliament Christian Paul noted that "the search for a more attractive economic model or for short-term profit has led certain [internet operators] to undermine the open and equal nature of the internet - to undermine its neutrality, especially by favouring such and such a type of communication or certain types of content".

The rapporteur of the fact-finding mission, an MP from the ruling conservative right UMP party, Laure de la Raudière, underlined that a number of factors were today leading to strong pressure to bring in content discrimination on the networks. She cited "the growth in traffic", notably from video and mobile services, "the growing pressure of the public authorities ... and the culture industry [which] is pushing for the development of blocking [sites] to stop access to 'illicit' content" and, in France, "the uniformity of triple play internet access1 offers, available at the lowest prices in Europe and allowing unlimited access to the internet, that's to say irrespective of the level of traffic".2

In 2008, Google evenplanned to install servers directly at the internet service providers toimprove access to its pages, and on August 9th of that year the search engine company, in partnership with the telecommunications operator Verizon, putforward its own vision of the neutrality of networks, after discussions with the relevant American authority, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broke down. In formal terms, it involves a "plan for a legislative framework" which envisages "priority tariffs" for certain content or services. In other words, everyone has access to everything, but those who pay the most get priority.

This is not so far away from what, in France, the operator Free - supposedly a champion of digital freedom - is proposing; last summer it created priority access to TV on demand, billed at 3.99 euros per month.

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1: Triple play is the term for the provision of broadband internet access, TV and telephone services in one package.

2: Mobile and landline phones.

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