European legislation involves the European Council, Commission, and Parliament. It makes things tricky because legislation has to be discussed and scrutinised by all of them before being voted on and passed through Parliament by MEPs. The process is ridiculously complex.
If you don’t know what net neutrality is, by the way, you should read this. In short, it’s the belief that the internet is a utility — like water or electricity — and shouldn’t be broken up into slow lanes and “fast lanes” (premium services for people who pay more.)
It’s really important. Especially if you like Netflix.
Net neutrality in Europe.
People are worried because the continuation of net neutrality in Europe is far from being a certainty. Back in April last year, everything looked rosy: The Wall Street Journal reported that EU lawmakers had voted to adopt a harder stance on making sure all online traffic is handled equally. Activists were optimistic, and awaited what they call a “free internet”.
The initial internet reforms were put together by Neelie Kroes, the former European Commissioner for Digital Agenda. It meant banning service providers from slowing or blocking parts of traffic, Wired writes.
But there’s a problem. There are lots of different countries in the EU, with lots of different telecoms CEOs. And they have serious weight in legislative issues. The European Commission (which proposes legislation and runs the EU day-to-day) has a big project called the “Digital Single Market.” It’s all about deciding the future of digital technologies in Europe — and involves the telecoms companies. Net neutrality features in all of that.
So after the European Parliament announced its intention to boost net neutrality, telecoms companies such as Deutsche Telekom and Orange SA were annoyed. The Wall Street Journal wrote last year that they were fighting with lawmakers over the situation. Obviously, having the power to offer premium services at higher costs (something that net neutrality would prevent) would be good for network providers.
Now, Wired reports that the 28 EU member states have voted in favour of changing the rules set out in the initial legislation. Doubts were first raised over net neutrality in Europe when in early 2014, the Council put net neutrality on hold for Europe, the Wall Street Journal wrote.
The European Council, which directs the general political direction and priorities of the EU, operates with a “rotating presidency” policy. It changes between member states every 6 months. And during that time, the presidency chairs meetings and discussions to push plans and legislation forward.
In November 2014, the European Council, then run by Italy, said it wanted “compromise” on the issue of net neutrality, and heralded a “non-discriminatory and proportionate” plan — it didn’t want some people to have a lesser internet than others. But it also didn’t want the internet to be “anti-competitive.”
That last point is a big deal. Introducing competition means allowing for differentiating services, or changeable speeds. It seemed like it was buckling to pressure from telecoms companies.
So what’s happening now?
Latvia now has the reins on the net neutrality debate. It’s the current presidency for the European Council and it has the same (or similar) stance as Italy on the issue of net neutrality.
Recently, the presidency held a “ministerial dinner” to talk about the “Telecoms Single Market” regulation proposal, or “Telecom Package,” of which net neutrality is a part. Here is the briefing that came out of that dinner. People such as Günther Oettinger, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, and Anrijs Matīss, Minister for Transport and Communications of Latvia, were there.
The current Latvian presidency leading the European Council supports something called a “principle-based” approach on net neutrality. The Council is really vague about the detail with this, but it’s a woolly way of describing a “two-tier” system: A faster internet lane and a less efficient one. As the Register reports, this means a competitive market, with differentiating and variable services, depending on what you’re willing to pay.
Granted, the European Council does say there would be regulation here. Nobody would be left with extremely slow internet speeds. This means that there wouldn’t be varying levels in the lower tier of the internet. Nobody would be in internet poverty, so to speak. “The draft regulation sets out to ensure that companies that provide internet access treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner,” it notes.
But the meeting still underlined a proposal to offer differentiated speeds and services. Fortune reports that the EU is preparing to allow providers to do this. Member states are going so far as to draw up details that will allow telecoms groups to prioritise services. Whether it’s regulated or not, it’s still the opposite of net neutrality.
The Commission’s position.
The European Commission’s role is to make proposals and assess the consequences of legislation before they’re passed. So it’s not going to make the law. It does, however, have a big influence. Most recently, Commissioner Oettinger gave a speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. His words indicate better than anything the Commission’s apparent view on net neutrality. Oettinger said:
I welcome the progress in Council, now focusing on net neutrality and roaming. However I will continue to work with them and the European Parliament to achieve a political compromise on some other elements of the package that are vital to a wireless connected society and economy.
What the telecoms companies are saying now.
Mobile World Congress provided a platform for telecoms companies to speak up about net neutrality. The Register reports that at MWC, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri ridiculed the idea of a one-speed “neutral” internet. He claims some channels are more important than others.
The Financial Times explains that, more recently, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have both argued the case for giving “essential” services priority. Again, this is about faster lanes online. They say that it would allow for quicker connections for hospitals, for instance. But they don’t rule out premium services for those who pay more, too.
It’s now up to the European Council and European Parliament to act upon proposals to create a net neutrality law in Europe. Crucially, the European Council can now start negotiations with the European Parliament to truly decide Europe’s digital future. Both say they want to “safeguard open internet access.”
The European Commission’s latest press release is vague because the finer details aren’t publicly available, a spokesperson told Business Insider in an email. However, the information that has been published says a great deal:
The draft regulation is to enshrine the principle of end-users’ right to access and distribute content of their choice on the internet. It also sets out to ensure that companies that provide internet access treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner.
It sets common rules on traffic management, so that the internet can continue to function, grow and innovate without becoming congested. Blocking or slowing down specific content or applications will be prohibited, with only a limited number of exceptions and only for as long as it is necessary. For instance, customers may request their operator to block spam. Blocking could also be necessary to prevent cyber attacks through rapidly spreading malware.
As regards services other than those providing internet access, agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.
National regulatory authorities will play a key role in ensuring that telecom companies and operators respect the rules on open internet. For this, they will receive guidance from the Body of European Regulators BEREC.
But Parliament might not agree.
Despite all this, the European Parliament still holds the stance (from last year) that it wants to uphold a more definitive position on net neutrality — something more like America’s choice, which is to vote in favour of net neutrality. And for law to be passed, Parliament must agree on whatever legislation is drawn up.
The Register writes that Dutch MEP Marietje Shaake, an advocate for net neutrality and spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, the EU’s fourth largest group of MEPs, said the current proposals are “disappointing to the point of insulting.” Shaake is calling for much more transparency on the debate and points out the following:
The council wording is vague and this is a problem. Ambiguity and uncertainty create loopholes. We need clear principles and definitions. These are not in the council text, and I don’t think that’s an accident. The council will face a huge fight to get this wording approved.
And more than 100 MEPs signed a letter on March 4 to the Telecoms Council. In it, they stress the need for more clear, defined rules on net neutrality for Europe.
Net neutrality will probably not be decided for Europe any time soon. Until then, 96% of Europeans are without legal protection for their right to access a full, open internet.
But it’s one of the most relevant debates in Europe right now. The BBC reports that the European Commission has now sent the drawn up proposals to European Parliament for consideration. If these go through, it means that MEPs will eventually vote on whether they want some users to have privileged access to the internet.