(Repeats item that first ran on Friday)
By Andrei Khalip and Agnieszka Flak
LISBON/MILAN, Dec 15 (Reuters) - America's decision to scrap
rules designed to ensure a free and open internet leaves the
European Union as the biggest market where Net neutrality still
prevails -- but critics say the EU is not a level playing field.
Consumer rights groups complain that EU regulations are
being interpreted in ways that allow telecom firms and internet
providers to offer discriminatory access to applications ranging
from social media to music and video streaming.
"In practice, providers are allowed to use their position as
gate-keepers to favour certain services, which is detrimental to
consumers, competition and innovation as far as new, smaller
players are concerned," said Eduardo Santos, director of the D3
Association for the Defense of Digital Rights in Portugal.
"The law is lax on that, which is wrong," he said.
At the heart of the issue is a practice whereby network
operators charge nothing for data traffic on a popular app or a
pool of apps in order to attract more clients.
This preferential pricing strategy, called "zero rating", is
being tolerated to an extent by European net neutrality rules.
In Portugal, the practice grabbed international attention
when U.S. House representative Ro Khanna, campaigning against
the removal of net neutrality in the United States, portrayed it
as a country without a level playing field.
Khanna tweeted that Portuguese internet providers were
"starting to split the net into packages" and cited offers
advertised by local telecoms provider MEO, a unit of
Aside from standard zero-rating pricing, some of MEO's
mobile phone packages adopt two-tiered pricing which critics see
as an even bigger departure from net neutrality than zero
In addition to a basic package, it offers more attractively
priced add-on packages tied to groups of the most popular apps.
For example, its "Social" package lists eight apps including
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Apps not listed
are only available at the more expensive, basic data-usage
MEO says it "complies with the EU rules on net neutrality
and there is no market distortion caused by its offers".
It denies any preferential treatment, saying that the apps
tied to its packages only reflect consumer preferences and that
other app providers should contact MEO if they want to be
'WE CONTINUE TO FIGHT'
Nevertheless, experts and regulators say it is an
exaggeration to describe the EU situation as "no net
neutrality". EU rules still ban operators from blocking access
to apps, which is what backers of net neutrality fear will now
happen after the U.S. regulator's decision on Thursday to repeal
the rules there.
However, Carlos Martins, a software programmer and blogger
in Portugal, said MEO's offers represented a threat to fragment
the internet. He likened it to the broadcasting industry, where
content is split up into separate pay-TV channels.
"Unfortunately the tendency is for providers and telecoms to
test the limits of the rules more and more, so the concern is
that such offers will spread," Martins said.
In Italy, mobile operator Wind Tre was banned this year from
offering its own music app in a zero-rating plan, meaning the
app's usage did not count toward the plan's data cap. Once the
cap was reached, the app could keep functioning while "general
traffic" would slow down until more data was purchased.
Wind Tre did not comment for this story.
In making its decision, Italian regulator AGCOM cited the
EU's net neutrality policy, adopted in April last year, which
states "providers of internet access services shall treat all
traffic equally, when providing internet access services,
without discrimination, restriction or interference".
The policy is interpreted by national regulators which may
have different views on the issue of zero-rating, said Marco
Pierani, a spokesman for Italian consumer group Altroconsumo.
"There are cases that can be interpreted differently
depending on the country, which is absurd given that we should
be a single digital market," he said.
"It is a battle we continue to fight ... Leaving the choice
to the service providers creates a false market and places the
choice in the hands of very few operators who are very strong."
The Body of European Regulators for Electronic
Communications (BEREC), has produced guidelines on zero-rating
and acknowledges national regulators "are still at an early
stage of the implementation of net neutrality rules".
"The situation with zero-rating offers is not black and
white," BEREC chairman Sebastien Soriano told Reuters.
The group expects to come up with a detailed report within
12 months to assist Brussels in a review of the regulations.
"We are applying these rules for a little more than a year.
We ask for a little bit of time to be judged on that," Soriano
said, adding that national regulators were taking action.
"That MEO offer is a third kind of offer -- so far the only
one in Europe... but I assure you that it is under scrutiny by
the Portuguese regulator ANACOM and it has not been cleared."
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Milan; Editing by
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