Last week, the European Union's ePrivacy watchdog, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), announced that it has concerns about the data privacy implications of net neutrality, and a "serious policy debate" is needed for the practice to be most effective.
The debate surrounding net neutrality has been ongoing for more than a decade and is equally heated on both sides. Essentially, the principle of net neutrality would remove restrictions on user access to content on the Internet. This means Internet Service Providers cannot favor certain websites or give precedence based on content. But it may also mean ISPs have more freedom to monitor user activity.
Advocates say net neutrality would give everyone equal access to the web. In principle, users would be able to control what content they can access on the Internet, as ISPs wouldn't be able to block certain content, like P2P or voice over Internet protocol sites for example, based on their own discrimination. Proponents argues that this would improve transparency and promote fair practices, which could benefit smaller websites.
Opponents – largely consisting of ISPs, telecoms and hardware companies – argue that net neutrality inhibits ISPs' ability to manage web traffic, which could seriously impede speeds, especially during peak hours. Some also say that net neutrality violates property rights, because ISPs themselves own the channels through which people can access the Internet.
In Europe, the debate surrounding the practice has become pointed. In its statement, the European Data Protection Supervisor acknowledged that the issue of net neutrality has "triggered great interest and controversy over recent months," especially given the fact that net neutrality may allow ISPs to monitor Europeans' Internet activity. The EDPS described some of the inspection techniques used by ISPs as "highly privacy-intrusive."
"The concept of net neutrality builds on the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source," said EDPS supervisor Peter Hustinx. "By looking into users' Internet communications, ISPs may breach the existing rules on the confidentiality of communications, which is a fundamental right that must be carefully preserved."
The EDPS asserted that a debate is needed to create a "satisfactory policy" that ensures ISPs do not violate privacy rights through activity monitoring. The watchdog group argued that inspection practices must be legitimate and, in some cases, should require user consent. The EDPS also proposed that data protection safeguards, such as purpose limitation and data security standards, will need to be determined.
"[T]he [European] Commission should put forward policy measures aimed at strengthening data protection rules and ensuring legal certainty," the EDPS stated. "New measures should clarify the practical consequences of the net neutrality principle and guarantee users the possibility to exercise a real choice, notably by requiring ISPs to offer non-monitored connections."
Meanwhile, in the United States, the debate over net neutrality seems to be chasing its tail. Last December, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a set of net neutrality rules that would prohibit ISPs from discriminating based on content. The FCC's ruling is expected to go into effect on November 20, according to PC Magazine.
However, the rules have been criticized on both sides. In September, North Carolina-based nonprofit Mountain Area Informational Network filed a lawsuit asserting the FCC's ruling doesn't go far enough. But telecoms say the ruling goes too far, and last week a judicial panel selected the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear Verizon's case against the FCC. According to Politico, the D.C. Circuit is likely to overturn the FCC's ruling on the grounds that the commission doesn't have jurisdiction over net neutrality issues.
Given these developments, it seems inevitable that some form of net neutrality will emerge in Europe and the United States. How strict it will be – and whether it will please any of the involved parties – remains to be seen, however.
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