Netherlands makes net neutrality a law

Image caption,
Net neutrality has been an issue around the world, both for desktop and mobile internet

The Dutch may become the first in Europe to use Skype and other web-based services on smartphones for no extra charge.

On 22 June, the Dutch Parliament passed a law stopping mobile operators from blocking or charging extra for voice calling done via the net.

The bill must now pass through the Dutch senate, but its passage is expected to be a formality.

The move may prove crucial in Europe's on-going debate over net neutrality.

Net neutrality is controversial around the world, with heated discussions on the subject taking place in the United States, Europe and many other regions.

The idea it enshrines is that all internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of its type - be it video, audio, e-mail, or the text of a web page.

However, ISPs said they need to discriminate because unchecked traffic from some applications, such as games or file-sharing programs, can slow down their entire network for all customers.

As a result many ISPs throttle, block or charge extra for many bandwidth hungry applications and content.

This has become an issue for content creators, who do not want to have a two-tier internet and would like users to enjoy whatever they produce in the best way possible.

Before now the issue has largely been confined to home net access rather than mobiles.

Extra fees

The European Union endorses net neutrality principles, which state that telecommunication companies may charge extra for some services, but need to tell customers what they are doing.

The European Commission has adopted a "wait and see" approach with Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, stating in April that Brussels would spend 2011 "closely looking at current market practices".

Ms Kroes promised to present the findings and publicly name "operators engaging in doubtful practices" at the end of 2011.

Taking action

So far, the Netherlands is the second country to enshrine the net neutrality concept into national law, after Chile.

The Chilean bill was approved in July 2010 and finally implemented in May 2011

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Vodafone charges its customers when they call by Skype

While advocates of net neutrality idea praised the Dutch government for the move, the country's telecommunications companies were disappointed.

All major mobile network providers, including Vodafone, T-Mobile and the former Dutch state telecom Royal KPN NV, had lobbied against the bill, warning that they may raise subscription prices if the law was passed.

Vodafone said the law would inevitably "lead to a large increase in prices for mobile internet for a large group of consumers" as it could no longer single out heavy users for higher charges.

In a statement, KPN said that it regretted "that parliament didn't take more time for this legislation".

It was KPN's initial actions that prompted Dutch politicians to react, after it announced plans to charge customers extra for using Skype and WhatsApp, a free text messaging service.

A public outcry followed with users saying they were unhappy with the pricing policy and many questioning how KPN knew they were using these applications in the first place.

After the country's consumer rights watchdog asked to investigate possible privacy violations, the issue got all the way to the parliament.

Labour MP Martijn van Dam, one of the bill's co-authors, said that KPN was similar to "a postal worker who delivers a letter, looks to see what's in it, and then claims he hasn't read it."

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