Nº 6 2013 > Interviews and viewpoints
Interview with Dr Leonidas Kanellos
The 2013 Chairman of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), and President of the Hellenic Telecommunications and Post Commission (EETT), Greece
Net neutrality has been a hot topic for regulators for some time now. In the following article, ITU News seeks the views of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) on this important subject. We hope in due course to bring you the opinions of other regulators from around the world on how they are treating net neutrality.
Why is net neutrality so important to European regulators?
Dr Leonidas Kanellos: The Internet has contributed enormously to growth and innovation in world economies, and has become a crucial part of the everyday life of most citizens. Much of this success is down to the openness of the Internet, which operates on the basis of an application-agnostic, best-efforts paradigm. This approach provides low barriers to entry and fertile ground for innovation, in particular in the development of new content and applications.
As regulators, it is our role to safeguard competition (including in the delivery of content), to promote innovation, and to foster the freedom of end users to access and distribute content and run applications of their choice online. To achieve these objectives, we need to monitor the market and be ready to intervene if necessary.
One area to watch is traffic management. Internet service providers have developed the technical means to actively manage data traffic over their networks. Of course, this practice is not intrinsically damaging to competition, innovation or consumer welfare. In fact, it should be welcomed when it aims at guaranteeing network integrity or improving the efficiency of resource allocation.
Our main concerns relate to traffic management that restricts particular applications (for example, blocking access to VoIP on mobile networks or throttling peer-to-peer traffic) and billing policies that differentiate between applications. If Internet service providers commonly prioritize specific users or applications or specialized services, then the "best efforts" Internet could be undermined and services to the general user could fall below an acceptable level. This might well call for a regulatory response.
How can regulators promote net neutrality?
LK: European regulators have the power, under the European Regulatory Framework, to promote effective competition by imposing remedies on operators with significant market power. Such remedies may include requirements regarding price, access and non-discrimination. Regulators can thereby create commercial incentives for operators to provide access to high-quality products.
Effective competition also relies on the ability of customers to switch suppliers, which implies low barriers to switching in terms of cost, time and ease. The availability of unrestricted offers also spurs competition. BEREC is looking at consumer behaviour, and investigating how traffic management practices affect customers’ switching decisions.
Transparency of terms and conditions is also necessary for competition to operate properly and hence for the promotion of net neutrality. End users must have access to information about offers available on the market, so that they can identify the quality parameters (and any restrictions) and choose the offer most suited to their needs. BEREC continues to exchange experience with other regulators on how to ensure that the information provided on these services is understandable and comparable. The possibility of developing common frames of reference for describing Internet access services (including terminology and quality parameters) is also being considered.
The above-mentioned regulatory tools and practices may not always be sufficient to address net neutrality challenges. BEREC therefore recommends that regulators continuously monitor the quality of Internet offers and the evolution of the market, in order to detect service degradation, look for evidence of the availability of affordable unrestricted Internet access offers, and follow trends in specialized services and traffic management practices.
Depending on the conclusions of such monitoring, regulators can impose minimum levels for quality of services, or prohibit blocking and throttling. BEREC nevertheless believes that such powers should be used with caution, and typically only where other regulatory tools are unable to make a sufficient impact.
What is your assessment of the current situation regarding net neutrality in Europe?
LK: In May 2012, BEREC published its findings on traffic management and other practices resulting in restrictions to the open Internet in Europe. According to the report on these findings, a majority of Internet service providers offer Internet access service with no application-specific restrictions. But certain practices, such as blocking or throttling of peer-to-peer traffic or VoIP, may be detrimental to end users. These practices occur more often in mobile networks than in the fixed network sector, but there are significant differences between national markets.
Concerns about net neutrality are legitimate, because rapidly evolving practices make it credible — though not certain — that problems will arise more frequently in the future. National regulatory authorities should therefore continue to closely monitor the evolution of the market, including by measuring the quality of the IAS available, and be ready to act swiftly if necessary.
Proponents of net neutrality are concerned by the practices of other players in the Internet ecosystem, and they are calling for extended national or European legislation to guarantee continued equality of treatment along the Internet value chain. Some of them have expressed concern about the possibility that over-the-top (OTT) providers and terminal manufacturers may restrict access to content, as these players increasingly gain momentum and the power to steer consumer choices. Search engines and operating systems for mobile devices are also often depicted as playing a key role in the link between users and content.
How do you see the way forward?
LK: BEREC believes that existing regulatory tools enable regulators to address net neutrality concerns for the time being. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that market structures and local consumer behaviour, as well as national legal systems, vary across Europe. Thus, while European regulators will continue to pursue the same objectives and apply the same principles, national regulators will need to adopt specific triggers and thresholds for regulatory intervention in their own markets in order to most effectively address national circumstances.
Going forward, Europe’s regulators will continue to monitor the quality of Internet access service offers (including traffic management practices and the availability of unrestricted offers), as well as market trends (focusing particularly on understanding the end-user perspectives and demand-side forces) that may affect net neutrality. We are also looking at the various available platforms and approaches that can be used for measuring the quality of Internet access services. We are seeking to exchange experience and to build know-how among regulators. BEREC will, of course, continue to provide its expert opinions to the European institutions in the context of policy and law making in this area.
Dr Leonidas Kanellos
Dr Kanellos is an attorney-at-law and a member of the Athens Bar Association, with long professional experience in the application of the electronic communications and competition laws of the European Union (EU). He graduated from the Faculty of Law of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (1984), and holds a PhD in Law (1990) and a DEA in “Information Technology Law and Legal Information Technology” (1985) from the University of Montpellier, France.
Dr Kanellos served as a member of the Legal Advisory Board of the European Commission Directorate General for Information Society from 1990 to 2001. Between 1989 and 2009, he led several projects and international studies aimed at introducing EU law into Greek legislation in such areas as competition analysis of networks and services, convergence of multimedia technologies, electronic commerce, electronic signatures, intellectual property in software and databases, consumer and data protection, legal protection of technical standards, regulatory compliance with safety regulations, and fibre-to-the-home. He has served as a legal expert in a number of international and national committees, lectured at the Aegean University and the University of Piraeus, published many articles and contributed to several books. Dr Kanellos co-authored the Founding Act of the Hellenic Telecommunications and Post Commission (1992).