UN-backed agency the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is seeking changes to international rules governing telecoms amidst a developing battle for control of internet governance with US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNOA), feeding into that process, has proposed (2-page / 164KB PDF) new "high-level principles" for those revised rules that would effectively prevent member countries signed up to them from establishing a legal framework based on pure 'net neutrality'.
"Members States shall ensure that Operating Agencies cooperate in the establishment, operation and maintenance of the international network to provide satisfactory quality of service," the ETNOA has proposed that revised International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) should state. "Member States shall facilitate the development of international IP interconnections providing both best effort delivery and end to end quality of service delivery."
"Operating Agencies shall endeavour to provide sufficient telecommunications facilities to meet requirements of and demand for international telecommunication services. For this purpose, and to ensure an adequate return on investment in high bandwidth infrastructures, operating agencies shall negotiate commercial agreements to achieve a sustainable system of fair compensation for telecommunications services and, where appropriate, respecting the principle of sending party network pays," it said.
"Operating Agencies shall cooperate in the development of international IP interconnections providing both, best effort delivery and end to end quality of service delivery. Best effort delivery should continue to form the basis of international IP traffic exchange. Nothing shall preclude commercial agreements with differentiated quality of service delivery to develop," ETNOA's proposals said.
ISPs sometimes block or slow down users' access to some content during busy periods on their networks, but can also benefit from this kind of "traffic management" by charging content providers who are willing to pay for preferential access to their subscribers or by charging users more for fewer restrictions. Net neutrality is the principle that an ISP will deliver all content requested by a customer equally, not allowing content producers to have preferential access to its subscribers.
Controversy over net neutrality has been most prevalent in the US where some telecoms companies have said that content producers should share the cost of network building and maintenance. Opponents of that view claim that subscribers' fees to ISPs should buy them access to all information equally, not to a service in which some content is prioritised because of deals between ISPs and content producers.
Earlier this year new net neutrality laws were ratified in the Netherlands. Under the new Dutch laws ISPs will generally be prohibited from hindering or slowing down applications and services on the internet subject to certain exceptions, according to an unofficial translation of the new laws. However, the law provides no exception that permits internet services to be hindered or slowed down because of content prioritisation.
In the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has accepted that some traffic management techniques are necessarily used by ISPs to ensure an efficient service. However, in November last year it said that ISPs must leave enough spare network capacity to deliver a 'best efforts' service, where access is generally "open" and "equal" for users.
Ofcom has said that it is happy to rely on the market to ensure that traffic management is legitimate and not discriminatory but that that strategy was dependent on ISPs being transparent with consumers "as to the nature of the services they offer". It said that ISPs are not currently providing users with enough information about their service and the traffic management they carry out.
The European Commission has also waded into the net neutrality debate. EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes recently announced that the Commission would publish new "recommendations" over restricting internet services.
Kroes said though that she does not "propose to force each and every operator to provide full Internet." She added that it would be for consumers to choose what internet services they wish to subscribe to, but that operators must provide a greater level of transparency over any limitations that apply to their services.