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European Union passes watered-down net neutrality laws

The European Parliament rejects proposed amendments to the net neutrality regulations that would have closed a number of loopholes

The European Parliament has passed a resolution to adopt the agreement reached on net neutrality and mobile roaming earlier in 2015, but has rejected a number of amendments that would have strengthened the regulations and better protected the open internet, leading to disquiet around the industry.

In a statement, the European Commission (EC) said the new rules enshrined the principles of net neutrality into European Union (EU) law, allowing no blocking or throttling of online content, applications and services, and guaranteeing a common EU-wide internet rule set, contributing to its long-term goals around the Digital Single Market.

“Every European must be able to have access to the open internet and all content and service providers must be able to provide their services via a high-quality open internet,” said the EC in its statement welcoming the outcome of the vote.

“From the entry into force of the rules, blocking and throttling the internet will be illegal in the EU and users will be free to use their favourite apps no matter the offer they subscribe. Many mobile providers are blocking Skype, FaceTime or similar apps, or sometimes they ask for extra money for allowing these services: this will be illegal,” the statement continued.

“All traffic will be treated equally. This means, for example, that there can be no paid prioritisation of traffic in the internet access service. At the same time, equal treatment allows reasonable day-to-day traffic management according to justified technical requirements, and which must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic and of any commercial considerations. Common rules on net neutrality mean that internet access providers cannot pick winners or losers on the internet, or decide which content and services are available.”

However, yesterday (26 October 2015), Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, took to the blogosphere to warn the legislation as proposed contained a number of loopholes that meant the regulations were not as strongly in favour of true net neutrality as those passed by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

He expressed concerns around the definition and classification of services, encryption and zero-rating, and congestion management, all of which enabled internet service providers (ISPs) to flout the principles of net neutrality via the back door, he said.

Berners-Lee was backed by a number of organisations, which were also signatories to an open letter to Brussels that stated: “These problems jeopardise the future of startup innovation and economic growth in the EU. They also create barriers for US startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market.”

The letter was signed by a number of online businesses, IT suppliers and venture capitalists.

By rejecting the amendments, which were backed by some members of the European Parliament, the counter-argument states that the EU will still allow ISPs to boost speeds for those that pay by classifying them as “specialised services”; to exempt some applications from monthly bandwidth limits; to define service classes according to their own wishes and definitions; and slow internet traffic to stop “impending congestion”, again according to their own definitions of exactly what that might mean.

Mike Weston, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion, said that by rejecting the amendments, the EU had opened the door to an end to net neutrality in Europe and would severely damage tech companies and consumers.

“It’s the latest attack on the free movement of data across the world and another headache for tech companies. With Safe Harbour wrecked, the 'Snoopers' Charter' resurrected in the UK, and the US judiciary and legislature seeking to undermine data protection, there’s a tsunami of change crashing over how we all use data,” he said.

“An end to net neutrality is potentially a disaster. By seeking to ascribe different values to data and, possibly charging accordingly, it will be more expensive for many tech companies to operate. In some cases costs will be passed on to consumers, but in most instances startups will be hit hard and will not be able to grow quickly or spend as much money on innovation.”

However, in some quarters the vote was welcomed. The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which has previously expressed its concerns that the EU regulations might endanger the future of the UK’s independently developed voluntary code of practice, said on Twitter: “Pleased #OpenInternet rules passed with no amendments. We're looking at implications for UK.”

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