EU Net Neutrality Rules Allow ISPs to Mark Video Streaming, Videochat, Torrents, VPNs, and More for Mass Throttling

Ever wonder why certain apps or services seem to run at super slow speeds while other services hum right along? It may be that you’re getting throttled.

Throttling can happen for a number of reasons, some of them legitimate.

Good Internet providers do “traffic management” to create a quality experience for their users when bandwidth is scarce. If you’re on a Skype call, for example, it’s a safe bet that the packets for your call are the highest priority, while a software update you’ve been downloading for hours can wait a bit longer.

But traffic management has a dark side too.

Sometimes, ISPs get lazy. Rather than writing sophisticated rules that balance the different needs of all the different services and apps you use, they make crude and arbitrary decisions. ISPs have throttled file downloads over a certain size, for example. Some throttle video streaming sites, or BitTorrent. Videochat services like Facetime have been blocked outright.

When ISPs get lazy, traffic management can mean discrimination and result in ISPs prioritizing certain kinds of traffic for reasons that have nothing to do with alleviating congestion.

Why does this matter so much right now?

This summer the European Union — the largest economy in the world — will decide on its net neutrality rules. Traffic management is a key question. And unfortunately, the draft regulation contains loopholes that could enable ISPs to justify slowing down whole classes of services, like videochat, VPNs or bittorrent traffic, as a standard practice.

Under the regulation, ISPs would be directed to discriminate against certain classes of traffic when doing network management.

Commercial considerations in network management — like an ISP throttling a competitor’s video service while allowing one that they have a business arrangement with to run at full speed — are banned. And that’s a good thing. But the wording of the regulation could lead to forms of discrimination that are even more far reaching.

Instead of considering user preference or actual bandwidth allocation issues, ISPs would be encouraged to pick certain technologies for degradation. So, for example, peer-to-peer traffic could be throttled before traffic from streaming video services, even if the peer-to-peer service is in fact using less bandwidth.

All of these problems are amplified by another line in the regulation that allows ISPs to implement traffic management procedures even if no network congestion has actually occurred. The regulation says that ISPs can manage their networks in order to, “prevent impending network congestion.”

This language creates a slippery slope where networks could be managed by default, rather than only in cases where there are concrete indicators that network management is needed. After all, the decentralized, chaotic nature of the Internet is such that congestion could be impending at any time. As written, the rules give way too much room for ISPs to be lazy, or evil, unnecessarily throttling services that people enjoy and depend on.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are reasonable ways for ISPs to manage their networks to create a better experiences for their customers. But discrimination by ISPs based on types of service, when there’s no clear need or benefit to the user, is a clear violation of basic net neutrality principles, and Europe’s regulators should ban it in their net neutrality rules.

The question is: will they? And the answer is, probably not.

Unless, that is, startups, experts, activist organizations, and hundreds of thousands of Internet users band together to tell them they should.

Right now, European regulator BEREC (the European Union equivalent of America’s FCC) is conducting an open public consultation. In the US and India, the millions of comments that poured in during similar public consultations were crucial to winning strong net neutrality rules. BEREC’s consultation ends July 18th. The clock is ticking.

Do you want your Internet throttled whenever you set foot in the EU? Do you want the largest economy in the world to have their entire Internet economy at the mercy of Europe’s monopolistic ISPs?

No? Then file a comment with BEREC now, and share this post with as many people as you can, inside and outside of the Europe. This fight matters to all of us.