France Proposes New Rules for Internet Equal Access

The French government on Tuesday called for a law requiring Internet service providers to give all the traffic on their networks equal priority, saying existing rules were insufficient for protecting free speech online and ensuring fair competition among Web publishers.
The proposal would mark a big shift in French policy and a break with existing European Union practice on the thorny issue of so-called net neutrality. And though almost certain to meet resistance from some Internet service providers, it could fuel calls for similar rules throughout the 27-country European Union.
The issue came to a head in France in January, when one service provider, Free, temporarily blocked users from seeing advertising sold by Google until the government ordered Free to restore access.
The proposal, by a French government advisory panel and endorsed by the minister overseeing digital commerce, pits companies that build and operate telecommunications systems against Internet players that rely on the networks to deliver their content to consumers. The French proposal would still need to be drafted as legislation and taken up by Parliament.
“I do think that what happens in France could be a test case for what happens on these tensions globally,” said Matthew Howett, an analyst at Ovum, a telecommunications consulting firm in London. “There are a lot of countries waiting for someone else to move.”
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has sought to impose net neutrality regulations without legislation, but the initiative has gotten bogged down by legal challenges and other hurdles.
Google and Free, France’s second-largest Internet access provider, declined to comment on the proposal Tuesday.
Thierry Dieu, a spokesman for the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, a lobbying group in Brussels, declined to comment directly on the French proposal, but he said the group’s members favored a “harmonized” approach across the European Union, rather than country-by-country legislation.
“For the single telecommunications market in the E.U. and the certainty of business, this is very important,” he said.
Even some free-speech advocates questioned whether the rules proposed by the advisory panel were at odds with other moves by the government of the French president, François Hollande, to limit hate speech on Twitter and other social networks.
Until now, the European Union and national administrations in many of the member countries have said that no new regulations were necessary to ensure that Internet traffic — whether simple e-mail messages or bandwidth-hungry video files — was treated equitably by network operators. Telecommunications providers have generally been permitted to determine which files or traffic get priority during periods of peak network demand, which they say is essential, given ever-increasing traffic.
E.U. regulators in Brussels have said the high level of competition among Internet service providers was sufficient to prevent the kinds of abuses feared by advocates of net neutrality rules. According to the Brussels view, if a telecommunications company were to cut off access to a certain Web site for political or business reasons, users could simply move to a rival service.
The French showdown in January between Free and Google involved a dispute over the carriage of YouTube, Google’s video-sharing service. Free complained that YouTube hogs vast amounts of bandwidth, forcing the networking company to make big investments in infrastructure without generating any additional financial benefit from YouTube’s advertising revenue.
At the time, Fleur Pellerin, the French minister overseeing the digital economy, ordered Free to restore the Google advertisements. But she said the issue of net neutrality needed further study. On Tuesday, at a Paris news conference, she threw her weight behind the newly released proposal from the Conseil Nationale du Numérique, or national digital council, which recommended legislation to enshrine net neutrality as a “fundamental principle” of French law.
“At this moment,” Ms. Pellerin said, “neutrality has not been defined from a legal point view.”
The digital council, composed of experts from the private and public sectors, recommended that exceptions to net neutrality should be possible only with the approval of a judge.
“Freedom of expression is insufficiently protected under French law, amid the development of techniques like filtering, blocking, censorship and slowdowns,” the council said.
By Eric Pfanner and Nicola Clark
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