EU telecoms regulators said yesterday (6 June) that a new net neutrality law would give Europe stronger internet traffic rules than the United States, where a year-old regulation is facing legal challenges.
“In Europe we have a regulation that is more robust and a more legal-based approach. So from our point of view Europe is far ahead on the issue,” said Wilhelm Eschweiler, the vice president of Germany’s telecoms regulator Bundesnetzagentur and current chair of BEREC, the group of European regulators.
Eschweiler described meeting Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), during a recent trip to Washington, while Wheeler anxiously awaited a major court ruling that could topple net neutrality. The FCC passed net neutrality rules last year and is still entangled in a drawn-out legal battle with internet providers.
EU politicians have touted the new European law as stronger than the FCC’s rules because the US regulation could be changed more easily.
“Even with the new administration after the election, a new chairman could change the FCC order on net neutrality,” Eschweiler said.
The EU law is leftover from a set of telecoms reforms proposed by former Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes in 2013.
EU lawmakers agreed on the new net neutrality law last summer, but it won’t go into effect until after BEREC’s guidelines on the rules are finalised in August. The group laid out its interpretation of the law yesterday, but is still accepting written feedback over the next six weeks from anyone who sends in their concerns.
Telecoms regulators want the new net neutrality rules in Europe to follow the example of the Netherlands and India by restricting operators from offering certain services like Facebook for free with data packages.
BEREC wants the controversial practice, known as zero rating, to only be allowed if a national watchdog approves each offer individually.
Digital rights campaigners argue that zero rating feeds business to the services that an internet provider offers for free, skewing competition.
According to BEREC’s guidelines, operators won’t be allowed to offer zero rated services for free once a customer’s data allowance is used up. Regulators will also block zero rating if a service offered for free could have a negative effect on freedom of expression or consumers.
The new rules also prevent telecoms companies from slowing down internet traffic in order to speed up other, more expensive connections. National regulators are not supposed to monitor specific traffic that could reveal personal information about internet users. The watchdogs can impose penalties if telecoms companies don’t follow the rules.
Major telecoms companies complained that the regulators asked for stricter limitations than the law passed last year describes.
“We are very disappointed. We think these draft guidelines are a lot more restrictive than when the regulation was approved,” one lobbyist for Spanish giant Telefónica told the BEREC regulators during a press conference yesterday in Brussels.
He said it will be a burden for telecoms companies to prove that there is enough network capacity if they want regulators to approve faster connections for so-called specialised services, including remote surgeries, live online television or video on demand.
ETNO, the telecoms association that represents Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and other large operators, said the rules clash with Europe’s plans to introduce fast 5G networks by 2020 and increase the amount of functions in cars that rely on internet connection.
“A restrictive interpretation of traffic management rules would hamper the telcos’ ability to meet network requirements in a 5G-society,” the association said in a statement.
NGOs hailed the regulators’ guidelines as an improvement on the law approved last summer, but called for a complete ban on zero rating and tougher restrictions on when internet providers can slow down internet connections.
The European Union last year adopted its first ever net neutrality rules which require telecoms operators such as Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia to treat all Internet traffic equally.
Under the legislation, net neutrality rules will prevent internet service providers from blocking internet traffic—unless they’re required by law or need to manage congestion.
But critics aggressively attacked rules that allow companies to offer different internet quality for ‘specialised services’ and 'zero rating', a practice that gives consumers access to certain services for free as part of their data packages.