MEPs strengthen Net Neutrality in telecoms overhaul

  
Tiered services. US, 2009. [Barrett Buss/Flickr]

The European Parliament approved yesterday (3 April) a reform of rules governing telecoms and the Internet, enhancing guarantees for consumers to freely access online services, compared to the original text proposed by the Commission.

In little more than a semester, the European Parliament approved the overhaul proposed in September by the Commission, a "record" time according to the original provision's author, EU Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, and indeed a much speedier process than the normally lengthy legislative procedure.

The unusual fast-track approach adopted for the telecoms and Internet reform is partly due to its late proposal by the Commission, a year before the end of the mandate of the current Executive.

The reason why Kroes launched such a key reform so late in her mandate is not clear. More obvious appears the interest of MEPs to deal with it quickly, ahead of the European elections in May, as the legislative package includes plenty of measures which are easy to sell to voters.

The most trumpeted provision is the eventual abolition of roaming surcharges, paid when subscribers use their mobile phones in another European country.

It is a message sent around over and over again. Now it seems one the last chances to proclaim it. Parliament voted to end roaming fees "by 15 December 2015", only two weeks ahead of the Commission's original proposal, which referred to "by 2016 or earlier". Still, it was an improvement.

Consumers are set to benefit from such measures, and telecoms are likely to see their revenues grow.

Indeed, it is easy to foresee that the loss of roaming surcharges will be widely compensated by the increase in traffic, as mobile users realise that there is no more risk of so-called "bill shocks" when they call or surf the Web in another EU country.

A clearer Net Neutrality

Another easy-to-sell measure concerns Net Neutrality, a term referring to the freedom users have to access online services, such as Skype or Spotify, without experiencing a slower-than-usual connection.

The issue became widely known when national telecoms regulators began accusing Internet access providers, such as telecoms or cable firms, of slowing down traffic for specific services.

Reasons to do so can be many. Net Neutrality paladins accuse ISPs of slowing free services to favour paid platforms. If this trend continued, the Intner would become something very different from the free environment it is nowadays, they claim.

Another accusation is that top ISPs in Europe happen to be big telecoms groups, which see in certain services, such as Skype, crucial competitors to their off-line offers. Obviously, making Skype and its competitors less functional would help push consumers back to traditional telephone subscriptions.

The industry says that the occasional slowing down of connections is a normal traffic management action aimed at ensuring the smooth functioning of the Internet. It is also necessary to allow the growth of innovative and specialised (and also paid) services, such as data-intensive cloud applications, or video on demand.

MEPs took a line closer to the Net Neutrality defenders rather than the big telecoms companies.

According to the amended text approved, ISPs will be able to slow down traffic so long as the specialised services are not supplied to "the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access services" offered to other companies or service suppliers.

The original text proposed by Kroes read instead that the specialised services could be provided as long as they "do not substantially impair the general quality of internet access services."

Kroes' text opened the way for a much more invasive recourse to specialised services, and left many observers wonder about the limits of the definition of 'specialised services'. 

MEPs, led by the group of Socialists and Democrats in the EP, "shortened the European Commission's list of “exceptional" cases in which Internet access providers could still be entitled to block or slow down the Internet," reads a Parliament press release.

Traffic management measures can only be used "to enforce a court order", "preserve network security" or "prevent temporary network congestion," MEPs agreed, underlining that these activities should be "transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate" and must "not be maintained longer than necessary".

The way forward

As for the third leg of the reform, which concerns the radio spectrum, MEPs confirmed the cosmetic measures proposed by the Commission on a vague coordination of frequencies' allocation across the continent.

The agreed text does not deal with the crucial issue of deciding which services - mobile phone or TV - should benefit from the limited frequencies available.

Spectrum is a very sensitive topic in member states, which are seen as profoundly unwilling to relinquish their control of such a strategic asset. A more ambitious proposal on radio frequencies was expected to be obstructed by the EU Council. Therefore it was never in the cards.

The reform package is set, however, to face strong opposition from member states and is very unlikely to be approved by the end of this Commission's mandate in October.

Kroes said to be confident that a deal between Parliament and Council may be possible before October, but the Council is likely to listen to big telecoms companies much more than MEPs did.

Moreover, the crucial negotiations on the final text will be carried out by a Parliament different from this one, as EU elections loom. The most likely option is a significant watering down of the existing text, or, alternatively, its wholesale rejection.  

Positions: 

"This vote is a great step towards strengthening the telecommunications single market.  Parliament wants to abolish retail roaming charges for voice, SMS and data by 15 December 2015 and improve radio spectrum management to develop 4G and 5G throughout Europe", said the MEP in charge of the telecoms package, Pilar del Castillo Vera (EPP).

“We have achieved further guarantees to maintain the openness of the Internet by ensuring that users can run and provide applications and services of their choice as well as reinforcing the Internet as a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, jobs, social development and innovation,” she added.

Catherine Trautmann (S&D) said: “We managed to introduce a precise definition of ‘specialised services’ so that they are not confused with ‘internet access services’, and a binding reference to the principle of net neutrality."

"The protection of net neutrality allowed us to support the overall Telecoms Single Market package, which is urgently necessary, both for consumers and for companies, because it will bring certainty to the sector and will allow for investments, growth and job creation," she added.

Marietje Schaake (ALDE) said: “It is important that blocking and throttling will now be illegal. Liberals have tabled amendments to safeguard net neutrality and to define specialised services. We don’t want to block them, we just need good definitions. And by insuring clear rules of the road for the EU’s digital single market and the open internet, competition, innovation and net users will benefit.”

Greens/EFA e-communications spokesperson Amelia Andersdotter stated: “Thankfully, a majority of MEPs has seen sense and voted to uphold the principle of net neutrality in the EU. The proposals by the Commission, which would essentially have given large providers the all-clear for discriminating against users as they see fit, have been revised. The vote would explicitly provide for net neutrality and will hopefully ensure a level playing field for all online services and users, providing for a more open internet environment in which innovation is encouraged."

"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens. This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive,” commented EU Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes.

“Nearly all of us depend on mobile and internet connections as part of our daily lives. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped-off, and we should have the opportunity to change our mind. Companies should have the chance to serve all of us, and this regulation makes it easier for them to do that. It’s win-win,” she added.

The industry was not as enthusiastic about the vote. Luigi Gambardella, chairman of ETNO, he association of the main telecoms operators in Europe, said: “Today’s vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent Regulation, namely a strong European digital industry igniting growth and jobs creation. If the restrictive changes to the Open Internet provisions are confirmed in the final text, the access of European citizens and businesses to innovative and high-quality services will be negatively affected. This would turn into a dangerous situation, in which the European digital economy will suffer and EU businesses will be put in a difficult competitive situation with respect to other regions of the world”.

The provisions adopted by the Parliament "would further compromise investment and hinder innovation, limiting the availability of customised services differentiated on the basis of quality and price, and introducing additional restrictions on essential traffic management," reads a press release from GSMA, the association of Europe's main mobile telephone operators.

“For mobile to fulfil this potential, network operators must be able to develop services that meet the needs of consumers and charge different prices for differentiated products. This is also a key driver for the high network investment needed to meet Europe’s connectivity challenge and underpin growth,” added Anne Bouverot, GSMA Director General.

Opposite was the view of consumers associations. Guillermo Beltra, digital team policy officer at BEUC, the main consumers group in the EU said: “Net neutrality is as close as it gets to being the issue of our times for the internet. We are reassured to see MEPs say equitable internet provision must be realised."

"It is in no-one’s interest to see overt control of internet traffic speeds and access pass too far into the hands of Europe’s handful of network operators. Net Neutrality is the buffer against such a scenario. It’s also a bulwark against a future ‘two-tier’ internet of consumers paying premiums to access certain services or operators prioritising their own content while degrading the speed of competitors. Internet traffic management is like a good referee in football – it’s needed in minor emergencies and should otherwise go unnoticed,” he added.

“The European Parliament established the EU as the major global force to protect the freedom of the open internet” said Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), a group of privacy and civil rights organisations.

“The value of the Internet is its openness – the European Commission's efforts to experiment with the freedom of the internet in order to help a small number of companies is dangerous and short-sighted,” he added.

Timeline: 
  • 22-25 May 2014: European elections
  • October 2014: End of mandate of current Commission
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