TMT | IP Publikationer

Net neutrality; recent judicial developments

A free and open Internet. Many of us ta­ke it for gran­ted, the ab­i­li­ty to ac­cess any web­si­te at any ti­me, from any de­vice and geo­grap­hi­cal loca­tion. However, what we ta­ke for gran­ted might not ac­tu­al­ly be com­ple­tely open and free. In 2017 Ajit Pai, chair­man of the United States Federal Communications Commission was ac­cu­sed of “kil­ling the Internet” when he re­ver­sed pre­vious pro­vi­sions for­bi­dding Internet pro­vi­ders from bloc­king or pri­o­ri­ti­sing con­tent.

The am­bi­tion to pro­vi­de a free and open Internet is of­ten re­fer­red to as net ne­ut­ra­li­ty. The ph­ra­se was co­i­ned by the American pro­fes­sor and lawy­er Tim Wu back in 2003. Net ne­ut­ra­li­ty ba­si­cal­ly me­ans that Internet ser­vice pro­vi­ders may not pro­mo­te cer­tain web­si­tes, com­pa­ni­es or ap­pli­ca­tions be­fo­re ot­hers. The Internet as a plat­form is to be open and trans­pa­rent, not sub­ject to com­mer­ci­al in­te­rests or ot­her forms of li­mi­ting me­cha­nisms.

The ques­tion of pro­vi­ding equal and open Internet to all is no doubt a sub­stan­ti­al ques­tion in to­day´s so­ci­e­ty. 30 April 2016 the new Telecom Single Market Regulation (“TSM”) ca­me in­to for­ce throug­hout the European Union (“EU”). The re­gu­la­tion aims to establish com­mon ru­les to en­su­re a free and non-di­scri­mi­na­to­ry tre­at­ment of traf­fic in the pro­vi­ding of Internet traf­fic ser­vices as well as end-user´s rights. In ac­cor­dan­ce with the TSM all end-users are en­tit­led to the ac­cess and dis­tri­bu­tion of in­for­ma­tion and con­tent, to use and pro­vi­de ap­pli­ca­tions and ser­vices re­gard­less of loca­tion, ori­gin or des­ti­na­tion. Internet pro­vi­ders shall tre­at all traf­fic equal­ly and may not block, li­mit, dis­rupt or di­scri­mi­na­te any spe­ci­fic con­tent. To mo­ni­tor, ad­vice and gui­de the mem­ber sta­tes the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (“BEREC”) has be­en ap­poin­ted. BEREC gat­hers all the mem­ber sta­tes na­tio­nal re­gu­la­to­ry aut­ho­ri­ti­es and pro­vi­des a tho­rough know­led­ge as to the ma­na­ge­ment of electro­nic com­mu­ni­ca­tion throug­hout the EU.

In January 2017 the Swedish te­le­com- and in­ter­net ser­vice pro­vi­der Telia Company AB (“Telia”) was is­su­ed a de­ci­sion no­tice by the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (“PTS”) to ce­a­se traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res ta­ken in re­la­tion to so­me of their custo­mers. Telia had ma­de it pos­sib­le for end-users to con­ti­nue using cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions such as Facebook, Instagram and Spotify even af­ter their sub­scri­bed da­ta vo­lu­me had be­en con­su­med, a phe­no­me­non al­so known as zero ra­ting. PTS´s in­jun­c­tion ga­ve Telia 30 days to end all me­a­su­res, but Telia ap­pe­a­led to the Swedish Administrative Court of Appeal (sw. Kammarrätten i Stockholm) say­ing that this would le­ad to sub­stan­ti­al da­ma­ges for both Telia and the end-users. The court sta­ted that the in­jun­c­tion could be in­hi­bi­ted sin­ce the outcome, should the is­sue be brought to court, was un­cer­tain. Telia al­so cal­led for a pre­li­mi­na­ry ru­ling at the European Court of Justice as to the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of art. 3.3 of the TSM and Telia´s traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res. The court re­jec­ted the re­quest.

So what has hap­pened sin­ce?

Telia then ap­pe­a­led PTS´s de­ci­sion to the Swedish Administrative Court (sw. Förvaltningsrätten i Stockholm) clai­ming the in­jun­c­tion should be re­pe­a­led in full and not just in­hi­bi­ted. The Administrative Court de­li­ve­red ver­dict 28 September 2018 through an in-depth judg­ment with re­gards to the TSM. Telia clai­med that PTS had not per­for­med an in­di­vi­du­al ex­a­mi­na­tion of the dif­fe­rent kinds of ser­vices pro­vi­ded to end-users, and that the ser­vices did not in fact con­sti­tu­te such traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­re­ments that are pro­hi­bi­ted ac­cor­ding to the TSM. Lastly Telia clai­med that the ex­a­mi­na­tion that PTS had per­for­med was so in­a­dequa­te that the in­jun­c­tion should be re­pe­a­led by that fact alo­ne. The court sta­tes that traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res are al­lo­wed if they are re­a­so­nab­le and open, non-di­scri­mi­na­ting, pro­por­tio­nal and not ba­sed on com­mer­ci­al con­si­de­ra­tions, but ba­sed on ob­jecti­vely dif­fe­rent de­mands on the ser­vices te­ch­ni­cal qua­li­ty for spe­ci­fic ca­te­go­ri­es of traf­fic. The court al­so sta­tes that the­re is no le­gal de­fi­ni­tion pro­vi­ded to the term traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res but that the TSM requires equal tre­at­ment of traf­fic, and that not­hing had be­en pre­sen­ted to ob­ject that Telia´s ac­tions we­re com­mer­ci­al­ly ini­ti­a­ted. As to the ex­a­mi­na­tion that PTS had per­for­med, the court sta­tes that the re­le­vant aspect he­re is the traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res, and that the­re is no re­a­son to as­sess the­se me­a­su­re­ments dif­fe­rent­ly wit­hin the fram­es of the ca­se. Telia´s ap­pe­al was re­jec­ted in full. Telia ha­ve cho­sen not to ap­pe­al the judg­ment and ha­ve ac­cep­ted the court’s li­ne of re­a­so­ning by chan­ging the traf­fic ser­vices.

The court al­so cla­ri­fi­es that even though the gui­de­li­nes pro­vi­ded by BEREC are in fact not bin­ding, they do pro­vi­de sub­stan­ti­al in­for­ma­tion as to the le­ga­li­ty of ac­tions and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the TSM.

On 28 February 2018 the Portuguese Telecom Regulator ANACOM is­su­ed a de­ci­sion no­tice to­wards th­ree Portuguese Internet ser­vice pro­vi­ders to change their of­fers that are in bre­ach with the TSM re­gu­la­tion. These Internet pro­vi­ders had li­mi­ted the ac­cess to Internet by on­ly al­lowing custo­mers ac­cess to a few se­lec­ted ap­pli­ca­tions such as YouTube and Netflix. Similar to the ac­tions by PTS, ANACOM or­de­red amend­ments of zero ra­ting and si­mi­lar ac­tions wit­hin 50 days of the de­ci­sion.

Insofar, the ques­tion of net ne­ut­ra­li­ty, zero ra­ting and traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment is­sues ha­ve be­en brought up in se­ve­ral countri­es ac­ross the EU. To na­me a few of the­se both Austria, Belgium, Italy and Norway ha­ve all fa­ced si­tu­a­tions re­la­ting to the TSM. However, most of the is­sues re­la­ting to ot­her mem­ber sta­tes ha­ve focu­sed on zero ra­ting ac­tions, whe­re­as PTS put emp­ha­sis on the traf­fic ma­na­ge­ment me­a­su­res. As for Sweden, main­ly Telia and Hi3G (“Tre”) ha­ve be­en in focus for PTS´s su­per­vi­sion. However, Tre ha­ve con­ti­nu­ously repli­ed to PTS that they will ad­just their of­fers that might con­sti­tu­te a bre­ach of the TSM. Therefore PTS has not ini­ti­a­ted any for­mal de­ci­sions against Tre but con­ti­nues their sur­veil­lan­ce.

It re­mains to be seen how Internet ser­vice pro­vi­ders will con­ti­nue their com­mer­ci­al­ly be­ne­fi­ci­al ef­forts to pro­vi­de dif­fe­rent op­tions to end-users as to the ac­cess of Internet con­tent, and what ef­fects their ac­tions will ha­ve. The EU´s am­bi­tion to uphold a sing­le mar­ket and well ba­lan­ced com­pe­ti­tion between Internet ser­vice pro­vi­ders no doubt cre­a­tes hin­ders for far-re­aching com­mer­ci­al­ly “cre­a­ti­ve” so­lu­tions. However, it se­ems clear that the EU will not stand for any in­equa­li­ty and non-trans­pa­ren­cy when it comes to Internet ac­cess for end-users, and that the EU con­ti­nues its ef­forts in the aims to pro­vi­de a free and open Internet.

Författare är Thomas Nygren och Alexandra Sackemark.