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Net Neutrality: Europe Slips Into Reverse

Web Foundation · June 30, 2015

Following a mammoth negotiating session that ended in the early hours of this morning, the European Union (EU) has released their long awaited rules on Net Neutrality.

The EU Commissioner’s tweet and an accompanying press release proclaimed the rules as strong protection for net neutrality, but we’re not so sure. In fact, our initial response is one of disappointment. As others have pointed out, the proposals are unclear. At best they will lead to disputes and confusion, and at worst they could see the creation of a two-tier Internet. If enacted, these rules would place European companies and citizens at a disadvantage when compared to countries such as Chile and the USA.

The good news is, there is still time for decisive action. In the coming days, the EU will debate and release clarifications on important areas. Then, the full European parliament has to ratify the text later this year.

If you’re worried about the future of the Internet in Europe, send a tweet to tell European lawmakers to stand up for true net neutrality!

We’re still digesting the details of the deal, but here are two points of immediate concern to us:

1. “Specialised services” mean we could see the creation of Internet fast lanes. The EU’s proposed deal allows so-called “specialised services” — as long as they don’t interfere with the “open Internet”. On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. The EU gives the example of telesurgery — and we can all agree that doctors should be able to work using the Internet with a higher level of service in life-critical situations.

Unfortunately, though, opening the door to “specialised services” creates a large grey area which is open to abuse. For instance, the EU has suggested that Internet TV be classified as a specialised service. So where do, say, educational videos on YouTube fit in? When does a service become specialised? Also — we can’t imagine now what the future will bring. What if the email, search, or Web of tomorrow is classified as a “specialised service” that we have to pay more to access? Opening up this can of worms is sure to lead to legal disputes and ongoing uncertainty for everyone.

Ultimately, the only way to stop this is to be bold and pass strong net neutrality laws that preserve the Internet as it should be — an open platform for innovation. If the EU is determined to press ahead with exceptions for “specialised services”, such services should be tightly defined after broad public consultation, and take place in very limited exceptional circumstances, rather than becoming commonplace.

2. “Zero-rated” services are to be allowed — with unclear safeguards. Zero-rating plans typically involve Internet companies and telecoms operators teaming up and offering a particular service or bundle of services for free. The EU has decided to allow the practice of zero-rating, because “zero rating does not block competing content”. That’s true, but misses the point that any rational person will choose to get something for free, rather than pay for something else presented as a close alternative. But in this case, the free service could well be just a tiny slice of the open Internet, with content closely controlled by commercial interests, where the highest bidder can pay to have individuals see their content for free. Or, it could be something like a particular Internet telephony or music streaming service.

As our founder and Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee said when he wrote on this topic in February: “Of course, it is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers — able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day. Imagine if a new start-up or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers? This sounds a lot like bribery or market abuse…”

Simply allowing zero-rating on a blanket basis, with no clear guidelines as to what it can be used for, and how it will be regulated, seems like a retrograde step to us. The EU should ban zero-rating unless ‘free data’ can be used to access any part of the open Internet.

We’ll be following this topic closely in the weeks ahead. If you agree with our concerns, send a tweet today!

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