COVID-19 and “slow Internet complaints” in Italy

Users’ complaints about the poor speed of the Internet connections gain momentum. Petitions, newspaper articles, and timely and inevitable initiatives to “get compensation” accuse operators and Internet providers of not providing “enough bandwidth”. In times of crisis, they say, this “slows down smart-working”, but it isn’t likely so.

Firstly, it is necessary to distinguish the network (i.e. the transport infrastructure) from the platforms (i.e. the services that use it) or – in other words – the access, from the “sites”. If the network “goes fast” but the “sites” are slow because they cannot manage all the connection’s requests, the problem is the latter and not the former.

Secondly, you have to consider the level of service purchased. An asymmetric connection from 10 Euros-per-month has – evidently – performance and capacity very different from more expensive services and with a different level of warranty and assistance.

Which brings us to the third point: the relationship between the type of connection and the use the user wants to make of it. Not long ago, I won a lawsuit promoted by an accountant against an ISP. The accountant, who purchased a cheap connection, claimed damages for business interruption, having chosen to “work in the cloud” without an adequate connection and with no back-up access. He lost the case. This is to say that, if certain services (e.g. Netflix or Spotify) are part of the “access package”, then the consumer is undoubtedly entitled to complain if they are not adequately available. In contrast, if the service is pure access – i.e. purchased without any specific purpose – there is little to complain.

A fourth and further question concerns the application of the principle of contractual good-faith. This principle works for both the ISP and the consumer. Therefore, in performing the contract, the parties must behave in such a way as not to “abuse” the services. This translates, in many contracts, into the “fair use” clause, i.e. the customer’s commitment to avoid uses that saturate the available bandwidth. Therefore, it is true that during the emergency operators are obliged to make more bandwidth available. However, it is also true that users must – “must”, not “should” – do their part by not generating non-necessary network traffic.

Limiting network congestion is fundamental because if we are managing the COVID-19 emergency, it is also thanks to the (never quite widespread) presence and availability of the Internet. Keeping public electronic communication networks efficient – but also adapting platforms technologically – is everybody’s duty, including users who must behave responsibly.

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