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The position of the Media Authorities is that it is necessary to take into account the effects the different business models might have on the freedom of people to form their own opinions and on media plurality. Net neutrality is therefore an issue of diversity, and one of great importance to the Media Authorities.
In 2015, the EU passed binding legislation in the form of the “Regulation laying down measures concerning open internet access”, which then led to the publication of concrete guidelines by BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications). These developments at the European level are of particular interest to the Media Authorities, as BEREC made it clear that when evaluating the business practices of ISPs, regulatory authorities are to consider the effects they might have on freedom of opinion and freedom of information. This specifically touches on another area the Media Authorities are concerned with: safeguarding media plurality.
In the view of the Media Authorities, anyone providing services relevant to the formation of opinion should be given equal opportunities to gain access to the Internet and thus, to users. It is necessary to ensure a free and open Internet, and new content providers, e.g. those offering information relevant to forming opinions or those offering local and/or regional content, should not be restricted from entering the market.
Among other things, the need to ensure equality of opportunity applies to the monetary aspects of access. ISP business models that demand remuneration from content providers could fundamentally restrict equality of opportunity, as they make a content provider’s ability to disseminate information dependent on its economic strength.
When an ISP does not count certain services (e.g. a video or audio streaming service) towards a user’s data allowance as stipulated in the contract, this is called “zero-rating”.
Since it typically requires large amounts of data to download or stream audio or video files, this creates an economic incentive for users to prefer those options that won’t be counted towards their data allowance. This actually restricts the user’s freedom of choice as much as it does the equality of opportunity available to a content provider. If an ISP chooses to offer zero-rating on an entire category of video or audio services, all content providers should have access under the same conditions – i.e. zero-rating should be agnostic with regard to the particular applications and services involved.
The “Best Effort” Principle
Best-effort data transmission remains unaffected by this issue. According to this principle, all incoming data packets are forwarded as long as there’s enough bandwidth available on the network, i.e. it makes its “best effort” to transmit the data. There are no guarantees that information will be delivered in full or without errors; if one node in the network is carrying more data than it can handle, this can lead to network congestion, which then needs to be resolved using the appropriate control algorithm. This can lead to delays and other negative effects on streaming media.
From the point of view of the Media Authorities, the same basic conditions should apply to all network management services to prevent measures that would be discriminatory or have adverse effects on media plurality.
On the topic of net neutrality, the Media Authorities are in communication with the Federal Network Agency, the regulatory body in charge of telecommunications in Germany.