Europe Gives Internet Providers Right to Throttle Online Traffic Amid Virus Crisis

Netflix Co-founder, Chairman & CEO Reed Hastings-Getty-H 2018
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Netflix and YouTube have already agreed to switch to standard definition streaming as network demand shoots up with employees forced to work from home.

European government and regulatory bodies have authorized the European Union's telecom operators and internet service providers to apply exceptional measures, including the throttling of online speeds, to prevent network congestion amid increased demand as millions of Europeans are forced to stay home and use online collaboration and teleworking tools amid the coronavirus.

The EU's governing body, the European Commission, and the Body of the European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) gave the green light to telcos to take the necessary measures to ensure there is no disruption in online traffic.

The move comes after Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for internal markets, contacted Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to ask the streaming giant to reduce the data load on European networks by switching off Netflix's high-definition option for its film and series content. Netflix complied, as did Google-owned YouTube. Both companies have agreed to stream videos only in the less network-intensive standard definition format for a month.

European regulators, however, said the exceptional measures will not effect network neutrality rules. Telcos can "apply exceptional traffic management measures, inter alia, to prevent impending network congestion and to mitigate the effects of exceptional or temporary network congestion," authorities said, but "this is under the condition that equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally."

BEREC chair Dan Sjöblom noted that Europe was "currently not seeing any major congestion problems, and network operators seem to be coping well with the higher traffic load in the networks. But we nevertheless need to stay vigilant and be ready for if the situation changes."

The World Health Organization now sees Europe as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Italy has now seen more deaths from COVID-19 than China. Several European countries, including Italy, France, Spain and Germany, have severely restricted public movement, or put their countries under total lockdown to stem the spread of the pandemic.