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EPrivacy watchdog raises concerns over 'net neutrality'

The EU's data security watchdog has warned of "serious implications" for privacy and data protection if a disproportionate approach is taken to ensure net neutrality like filtering network traffic on a grand scale.

The nearly future

In the nearly future, internet service providers may be allowed or requested to monitor the traffic of data on the net with the aim of filtering or restricting internet access. This already happens in certain circumstances when operators block or hamper access to certain services on the internet.

As the Commission itself acknowledged in a recent document on net neutrality, "a classic example of this would be mobile internet operators blocking voice over internet protocol" services, just as Skype.

Operators argue that filtering is necessary to allow a functioning traffic management which ultimately benefits all internet users and prevents congestion of the net.

"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," argues the European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx.

When traffic management turns to be necessary, it should be done after a fashion that guarantees the fundamental right to privacy and data security of internet users, goes his argument. However this is not always the case.

The European Commission did not take a definitive position on traffic management in its communication on net neutrality published last April, nevertheless made clear that furthermore monitoring of dubious practices was required and could amount to possible regulatory measures.

"If significant and persistent problems are substantiated, and the system in the aggregate is not ensuring that consumers are easily able to access and distribute content, services and applications of their choice via a single internet subscription, the Commission will assess the need for more stringent measures to achieve competition and the choice consumers deserve," concluded the EU Executive’s document.

At the heart of the controversy concerning net neutrality is whether access to Internet services or content should be controlled and filtered or left untouched according to the principle of ‘best effort’.

The net for economic reasons

This principle implies that no provider can prioritise traffic on the net for economic reasons. Instead, every user should be served with the providers’ best effort. This criterion has seen derogations in order to allow more professional use of the Internet. In a word, a business user willing to pay more gets a faster and better connection.

However, extending this concept to many more users would run the risk of the majority getting such a poor service that it will prevent them from using the Internet. The borders between the two needs are currently being defined, and are subject to technological and regulatory developments.

The term '

The term 'net neutrality' was coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who has written widely on the rise of Internet monopolies just as Google and Facebook.

More information: Euractiv