Berec, the European regulatory agency, has issued its draft guidelines on the implementation of net neutrality rules (namely the rules enacted by arts. 1-5 of Regulation 2015/2120). The move of Berec was well-expected because the new European net neutrality rules leave wide margins of appreciation and a clarification for a consistent enforcement by national regulators is needed. BECEC is accepting feedback from interested parties on the draft guidelines until 18 July 2016. The guidelines will be finalized and published in September 2016.
The most debated subject to be clarified by Berec was the one of zero-rating, i.e. the commercial practice whereby ISPs apply a price of zero to the data traffic associated with a particular application or category of applications (and the data does not count towards any data cap in place on the Internet subscription). Big telecom operators have defended this practice on the assumption that it could boost innovation (although the innovation would merely limited to a price scheme, not to new services). Consumers and civil rights associations are normally against, because zero-rating would, as a result, influence the user’s choice of Internet services on the mere ground of the cost of Internet connectivity. More recently, operators and associations gathered in the Netcompetition alliance have underlined the anticompetitive effects of zero-rating practices for alternative telcos and innovative Internet service providers, in addition to consumers.
It must ne noted that the European rules on net neutrality are quite ambiguous. While they never mention explicitly zero-rating, they guarantee (article 3.2. of the Regulation) a general commercial freedom for ISP and users to negotiate data caps agreements they want, provided, however, that the “free choice” by users is not substantially undermined (art. 3.1.).
Recital 7 of the Regulation is a bit more clear:
“National regulatory and other competent authorities should be empowered to intervene against agreements or commercial practices which, by reason of their scale, lead to situations where end-users’ choice is materially reduced in practice. To this end, the assessment of agreements and commercial practices should, inter alia, take into account the respective market positions of those providers of internet access services, and of the providers of content, applications and services, that are involved. National regulatory and other competent authorities should be required, as part of their monitoring and enforcement function, to intervene when agreements or commercial practices would result in the undermining of the essence of the end-users’ rights”.
Taking into account of the above, Berec has not banned zero-rating practice but have left to national regulators the task to carry on a case by case assessment. However, the criteria suggested and the circumstances to verify suggest that national regulators may have string poker and wide discretion to ban zero-rating behaviors in practice.
In particular, Berec is suggesting that when a zero-rating practice is aimed at privileging a single service or applications, at the detriment of other competing services/apps, this behavior should be considered unlawful. More precisely, Berec stressed that (§39):
“the zero price applied to the data traffic of the zero-rated music application (and the fact that the data traffic of the zero-rated music application does not count towards any data cap in place on the IAS) creates an economic incentive to use that music application instead of competing ones. The effects of such a practice applied to a specific application are more likely to “undermine the essence of the end-users’ rights” or lead to circumstances where “end-users’ choice is materially reduced in practice” (Recital 7) than when it is applied to an entire category of applications”.
Truly speaking, if national regulators will literally follow this rule (as I hope, by the way) the zero-rating business is dead. The sole incentive of zero-rating practices, for dominant ISPs and OTT, is discriminating competing services. There is no commercial rationale for an agnostic application, i.e., like Berec says in theory: “as long as the data volume and speed characteristics are applied in an application-agnostic way (applying equally to all applications), end-users’ rights are likely to be unaffected by these characteristics and conditions”.
Thus, bye bye zero-rating.