Europe votes on the future of its internet tomorrow

Europe votes on the future of its internet tomorrow
Proposed legislation aims to protect net neutrality across the EU, but major loopholes threaten to undermine it
By Amar Toor
Oct 26 2015

Europe’s internet is about to go on trial, and activists are very worried about its future.

On Tuesday, European lawmakers will vote on a proposal that aims to protect net neutrality — the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all web traffic equally, without discriminating against some services in favor of others. The proposed legislation broadly prohibits ISPs from charging websites for faster connections, ostensibly keeping the web open and equal. But it also includes major loopholes that could undermine the very principle that it claims to protect.

If lawmakers approve the regulations tomorrow, they will become law across the EU, replacing existing net neutrality laws already implemented in the Netherlands and Slovenia. And if the proposal is passed without amendments, experts say it could have devastating impacts on innovation, market competition, and consumer privacy.

“Europe will have far weaker network neutrality rules than the US.”

“Europe will have far weaker network neutrality rules than the US, and the European internet would become less free and less open,” writes Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford law professor and director of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. (The US Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality regulations in February.)

Tuesday’s vote comes after two years of negotiations among the 28 member states in the European Union. The European Parliament approved rules that would strengthen net neutrality in April 2014, but making them law requires agreement among the Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union, a body of 28 EU ministers. The Council took issue with some of the key provisions laid out in the Parliament’s initial plan, and proposed amendments that would allow for crucial exceptions. A compromise proposal was announced earlier this year, and its current form includes troubling provisions.

Among the most contentious is a clause that would allow so-called “specialized services” to pay to have their content delivered faster. The idea is to protect IP services that demand high-quality connections and use the same access network as the internet but are not open to everyone, such as self-driving cars or remote medical operations. But critics say the current parameters are too broad, effectively allowing ISPs to create the kind of two-tiered system that net neutrality is designed to prevent. There are concerns over a similar loophole in the FCC’s net neutrality regulations, and companies have reportedly sought to exploit it for fast lane access.

A call for clarity

“Large corporations that pay to be in the fast lane will have higher costs, so we the customers will be forced to pay higher prices for their products and services,” van Schewick wrote in a lengthy Medium post last week explaining the major loopholes and their implications. “Small businesses that are unable to pay will be shut out of the market.”

European telecoms have argued that tighter regulations on specialized services would hinder their business, and ultimately harm the consumer. “If restrictive rules on traffic management and specialized services are approved, we risk to worsen the user experience and to reduce the overall growth and job creation potential of Europe’s digital economy,” Steven Tas, head of the industry group ETNO, told Reuters earlier this year.

Another provision pertains to zero-rating, a practice whereby the use of certain services or applications doesn’t count against a consumer’s monthly data allowance. The proposal both allows for zero-rating — which allows ISPs to favor one service over another — and leaves no room for member states to regulate it. (Netflix came under fire for a zero-rating scheme in Australia, as did Facebook’s initiative in India.)


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