The government called for a law requiring Internet service
providers to give all traffic on their networks equal priority,
saying existing rules were insufficient.
The French government called Tuesday for a law requiring Internet
service providers to give all the traffic on their networks equal
priority, saying that existing rules were insufficient for
protecting free speech online and ensuring fair competition among
The proposal would be a big shift in French policy and a break
with existing E.U. practice on the thorny issue of what is known as
net neutrality. And though almost certain to meet resistance from
some Internet service providers, the measure could fuel calls for
similar rules throughout the 27 countries that are members of the
The issue came to a head in France in January, when one service
provider, Free, temporarily blocked users from seeing advertising
sold by Google until the government ordered Free to restore access.
The proposal by a French government advisory panel, endorsed by
the minister overseeing digital commerce, pits companies that build
and operate telecommunications systems against Internet players that
rely on the networks to deliver their content to consumers. The
French proposal would still need to be drafted as legislation and
taken up by Parliament.
"I do think that what happens in France could be a test case for
what happens on these tensions globally," said Matthew Howett, an
analyst at Ovum, a telecommunications consulting firm in London.
"There are a lot of countries waiting for someone else to move."
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has
sought to impose net neutrality regulations without legislation, but
the initiative has gotten bogged down by legal challenges.
Google and Free, France's second-largest Internet access
provider, declined to comment on the proposal Tuesday. Orange, a
subsidiary of France Telecom, is the largest French provider.
Thierry Dieu, a spokesman for the European Telecommunications
Network Operators' Association, a lobbying group in Brussels,
declined to comment directly on the French proposal, but he said the
group's members favored a "harmonized" approach across the European
Union, rather than country-by-country legislation.
"For the single telecommunications market in the E.U. and the
certainty of business, this is very important," he said.
Even some free-speech advocates questioned whether the rules
proposed by the advisory panel were at odds with other moves by the
government of the French president, Francois Hollande, to limit hate
Until now, the European Union and national administrations in
many of the member countries have said that no new regulations were
necessary to ensure that Internet traffic -- whether simple e-mail
messages or bandwidth-hungry video files -- was treated equitably by
network operators. Telecommunications providers have generally been
permitted to determine which files or traffic get priority during
periods of peak network demand, which they say is essential, given
E.U. regulators in Brussels have said the high level of
competition among Internet service providers is sufficient to
prevent the kinds of abuses feared by advocates of net neutrality
rules. According to the Brussels view, if a telecommunications
company were to cut off access to a certain Web site for political
or business reasons, users could simply move to a rival service.
The French showdown in January between Free and Google involved a
dispute over the carriage of YouTube, Google's video-sharing
service. Free complained that YouTube was hogging large amounts of
bandwidth, forcing the networking company to make big investments in
infrastructure without generating any additional financial benefit
from YouTube's advertising revenue. …