After the chairman of the US communications regulator FCC, Ajit Pai, unveiled plans to repeal net neutrality in the US, California Rep. Ro Khanna tweeted: “In Portugal, with no net neutrality, internet providers are starting to split the net into packages.” The tweet also pictured packaged data offers from MEO, a Portuguese mobile carrier.
Shared over 64,000 times, the tweet garnered heavy coverage, particularly in the US, with many citing Portugal as an example of what goes wrong when net neutrality is abandoned.
Net neutrality is the concept that Internet service providers should provide Internet access without favouring or discriminating certain content, applications or services. This means that under the net neutrality principle, Internet providers should not be able to neither block nor facilitate traffic to specific websites.
MEO's Smart Net package has been frequently compared to cable channel offers. In other words, many understood that depending on the MEO package of choice, the consumer would only have access to certain apps or websites, while online access to other apps would be blocked unless payed for.
However, as The Verge pointed out, it's not quite the case. The offers presented by MEO are optional add-ons. So, on top of a regular mobile phone data package, where all apps and website are included, consumers can choose to pay more to have extra data that would be allotted to specific apps. Other carriers in Portugal, such as Vodafone and NOS, also offer similar versions of this package.
While the first the impression was that Portugal's internet neutrality policy was unregulated, the country follows the EU net neutrality standards put in place by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communcations (BEREC). Local regulator Communications National Authority (ANACOM) is in charge of making sure the neutrality measures set up by the EU are met within the Portuguese territory.
But, despite the situation in Portugal´s internet offers being more net ´neutral´ than what was originally reported, it still is a cause for concern for some.
Euronews spoke to Eduardo Santos, lawyer and president of D3 Association - Defence of Digital Rights, who clarifies the issues within this scenario from a Portuguese perspective.
Santos describes net neutrality as a concept in which internet providers should limit their roles to providing the access to internet, with no discrimination of traffic.
Selecting certain apps to feature in the packages, and not others, is then a problem.
“With this spirit in mind, despite being add-ons, these packages, are still problematic. MEO is using its positions as a provider to make business and discriminate what kind of apps or websites people may access, or even, it encourages the use of certain apps and discourages the use of others. This is a position that an internet provider should never have.”
Another barrier to entry
The lawyer also explained that one of the main issues with packages dedicated to specific apps, other than freedom of access, is creating barriers to new companies entering the market.
If a start-up aims to create a service that competes with one of the apps featured on the packages, besides having to face the existent barriers to enter the market, it will also aim at making agreements with internet providers to be featured in these offers and so be able to compete on the same grounds.
“The internet provider is using its position as a gatekeeper, deciding who enters and who doesn´t. Besides, knowing what criteria they are using to determine this is also something to think about. Are they receiving something to feature certain apps on their packages? Or are they using the most popular apps? Either way, it´s wrong.”
What does the regulation say about these packages?
According to Santos, the European neutrality laws do not specifically mention packages such as MEO's Smart Net. So, from a legal perspective, it's not clear whether this practice should be accepted as legal or not.
“The EU has created the laws but it's up to the regulators of each country to analyse and interpret specific cases. So it could be that different countries in Europe perceive the situation differently”
Portugal's communications regulator ANACOM are said to be looking into the case.
“We hope stricter measures are taken,” Santos concludes.
ANACOM and Portugal Telecom, MEO's parent organization, did not respond to Euronews' request to comment.