European telecom operators would face strict rules guaranteeing unrestrained internet access for customers under “net neutrality” proposals from Brussels regulators.

Under plans tabled by the Latvian presidency of the European Council, telecoms operators will have to ensure the “equal treatment of all traffic” except in certain circumstances.

These ranged from having to comply with a request from law enforcement, preserving the security of a network or letting users introduce parental controls.

However, the telecoms operators will be able to offer specialised, faster services so long as they do not interfere with the service offered to other customers.

The compromise was welcomed by telecom executives, given the alternatives of a hard line stance that would leave broadband networks as little more than unmanaged pipes.

“It is a step forward,” said one telecoms executive familiar with the proposals, who said the ability to provide differentiated services was a key concession for companies that want to charge different rates for higher speeds and guaranteed access.

“Net neutrality” — the principle that internet providers should treat all traffic equally — has sparked a major debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Proponents argue that it guarantees equal access to the internet, while critics claim that it stymies industry investment.

Latvia has made “an overall compromise” on the telecommunications reforms, which have dragged on for years, one of its main targets of its six-month presidency of the European Council.

To do so, it will have to deal with its fellow member states, which are reluctant to move too far, and the European Parliament, which is seeking far-reaching changes. These new proposals are still at a very early stage in the legislative process, with other member states yet to have their say.

However, there were still some areas of concern for the industry, in particular its inability to manage internet traffic for purposes other than addressing congestion problems.

“We manage traffic to deal with infrastructure problems or to squash video to allow it to be sent to users,” said one person.

They added that there were also gaps in the proposals in terms of how to treat online child abuse material, as well as the approach to so-called “zero rated” services that do not carry a data cost to the consumer.

Another council paper on roaming charges — the fees levied by telecoms companies on customers for using their phones abroad, which the EU have attempted to reduce — is expected on Tuesday. Any attempt to delay the introduction of lower roaming fees will be met with stiff opposition from the European Parliament.

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