A coalition of prominent figures have come out in support of net neutrality, as a European regulator ponders the implementation of new rules that will have a huge impact on the future of the internet on the continent.
133 founders, investors and entrepreneurs have co-signed a letter arguing that “without strong net neutrality rules, European companies will be at a huge competitive disadvantage, with the risk of further cementing the US-dominant position in the global digital economy.”
Signatories include Skype cofounder Niklas Zennstrom, Soundcloud founder Eric Wahlforss, Founders Factory’s Brent Hoberman, Union Square Ventures investor Fred Wilson, and more.
What’s the context to all this?
The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) is in the process of wading through half a million submissions from the public following a recently-closed consultation about the EU’s new telecoms regulation.
At stake is the thorny issue of net neutrality.
Simply put, net neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet should be treated equally by carriers and ISPs; companies cannot pay more to have their data reach users faster, and carriers cannot charge for “fast lanes,” if net neutrality is enforced. In a world without net neutrality, a big company like Netflix could pay the carrier to treat their data preferentially over others, ensuring smooth streaming for their customers.
It’s one of the most bitterly fought battles in tech policy. Carriers and ISPs are generally averse to the idea of net neutrality, wanting to retain more control over their networks, and because of the additional possibilities for monetisation that it provides. Meanwhile, activists argue that it creates a uneven playing field, and that “fast lanes” and preferential treatment benefit incumbents and harm competition.
Back in October 2015, the European Parliament passed the Telecoms Single Market Regulation, which addressed — among other subjects — net neutrality. But many believe it fails to properly protect net neutrality due to loopholes in the text; writing over at Ars Technica at the time, Glyn Moody called it a “flawed compromise.”
Although it came into force on April 30, it the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) needs to figure out how it will actually all work — and that’s where the consultation came in.
The regulation has pitted activists against telecoms providers.
BEREC held the public consultation, and has received a deluge of submissions from the public following calls to action from activists and well-known internet figures making a last-ditch effort to safe-guard net neutrality.
Writing on July 14, a few days before the closure of the consultation, world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee gravely warned that there is just “four days to save the open internet in Europe.”
He wants BEREC to do what the European Parliament failed to, and ensure net neutrality is strictly adhered to:
“In October, the European Parliament voted on network neutrality rules for the European Union. Now regulators are writing guidelines to determine how the law will be applied in practice. These guidelines could secure net neutrality in Europe — if regulators use them to close potential loopholes in the law.”
But there has (predictably) been pushback from telecoms companies, and even veiled threats. A consortium including BT, Nokia, Vodafone, and many more co-signed a “manifesto” which warned that the roll-out of high-speed 5G internet could be delayed if net neutrality was too strictly implemented. The manifesto said, via The Register:
“The telecom Industry warns that the current Net Neutrality guidelines, as put forward by BEREC, create significant uncertainties around 5G return on investment. Investments are therefore likely to be delayed unless regulators take a positive stance on innovation and stick to it … We must highlight the danger of restrictive Net Neutrality rules, in the context of 5G technologies, business applications and beyond.”
The tech industry wants to have its say.
Although the consultation is now closed, the tech industry still wants to make sure its opinion is heard. The co-signed letter says:
“We urge you to not concede to the pressure from certain companies to water down the current draft guidelines. To the contrary, BEREC should build upon the existing draft and strengthen it to the benefit of startups, consumers and the overall market. Without strong net neutrality rules, European companies will be at a huge competitive disadvantage, with the risk of further cementing the US-dominant position in the global digital economy.”
In a statement accompanying the publication of the letter, venture capitalist Fred Wilson said: “If Europe doesn’t pass strong net neutrality rules, telcos will pick their preferred partners, subsidise the data costs for those apps, and make it much harder for new entrants to compete with the incumbents.”