European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip and ten MEPs signed a joint declaration arguing for non-discriminatory, open internet access during this week’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Brazil.
According to some MEPs, the recently approved EU net neutrality law doesn’t live up to those standards.
The EU delegation focused its visit to the international conference on open internet rules, and the transition of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) away from the US government due by autumn 2016. The joint declaration signed by the group yesterday (12 November) called the Internet “a global, common resource” and referred to “the economic and social importance of online rights for privacy and of users’ control of their personal data.”
Ansip was joined at the annual four-day conference by MEPs Julia Reda (Germany, Pirate Party), Josef Weidenholzer (Austria, S&D), Julie Ward (UK, S&D), Carlos Zorrinho (Portugal, S&D), David Borrelli (Italy, EFD), Sabine Verheyen (Germany, EPP), Therese Comodini-Cachia (Malta, EPP), Michal Boni (Poland, EPP), Eva Kaili (Greece, S&D) and Marietje Schaake (Netherlands, ALDE).
Net neutrality and zero rating, the practice that allows telecoms to offer specific services without costing users any data, were among the topics under the spotlight at the IGF.
For EU lawmakers still reeling from months of heated debate over net neutrality, the IGF panels struck a nerve. On 28 October, the European Parliament approved an EU-wide net neutrality law that will go into effect pending a review by regulators within the next few months.
But some MEPs and advocacy groups called the law watered down and said measures that allow zero rating would dismantle the backbone of net neutrality by leaving room for telecoms to discriminate in favour of specific websites, apps or other content they offer for free.
While internet policy officials got together this week in Brazil, lawmakers in Brussels tried to work out their differences on net neutrality.
MEPs and Commission officials met on Wednesday (11 November) in Brussels—with the IGF ongoing in Brazil—for a day-long hearing on the controversial new law and a Parliament debate focused on zero rating.
Hit with MEPs’ criticism over zero rating, EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger said he was “indignant” and tried to ease MEPs’ concerns by vowing the Commission could intervene if the net neutrality law is abused.
“Why don’t you trust me? I’ve given you my word,” Oettinger asked MEPs.
Some MEPs who joined Ansip in Brazil said although the EU delegation came out publicly in favour of open, non-discriminatory internet rules, it’s still unclear whether the EU net neutrality law will meet that standard.
German MEP Julia Reda (Pirate Party) said Oettinger didn’t address zero rating during the debate in Parliament, and instead only promised to review the law if necessary once it is in effect.
“The fight for net neutrality in Europe is not over, but the debates at IGF are making it clear that other countries like Brazil, that are themselves working on implementing their net neutrality laws, are watching closely what the EU is doing,” Reda said.
“The standards BEREC will set for net neutrality in Europe may end up having an effect on our chances for an empowering and non-discriminatory Internet in the entire world.”
BEREC is the EU telecoms regulator currently reviewing the law.
Polish MEP Michal Boni (Platforma Obywatelska) said that zero rating can boost internet use in developing countries by offering limited internet access for free. “But, on the other hand, it is important to analyse all dimensions of zero rating solutions, whether they have possible consequences, as for example unintended results, e.g. positive discrimination,” he said.
Ansip met with US government officials and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé on the sidelines of the IGF for talks over the organisation’s restructuring once its contract with the US Department of Commerce expires.
“We just need to finalise work on improvements to ICANN accountability. We must not lessen our efforts to reach this goal,” Ansip said in a speech at the convention.
Community members of ICANN, the organisation responsible for administering internet domain names, convened last month in Dublin at a meeting dominated by talks to come up with a viable management plan for after next year.
ICANN staff have raised concerns about the tight timeline: since the plans for ICANN’s transition will be subject to review from the US Congress, Chehadé and ICANN’s Vice President for Europe Jean-Jacques Sahel warned that postponing that process could create a conflict with the US presidential election next fall.
MEPs also met with US officials about ICANN.
“We need this solution because under different circumstances there will be many problems with getting the internet properly functioning,” Boni said.
Negotiations from the European Parliament, Commission and Council agreed on a draft of the telecoms single market legislation on 30 June 2015, after heated night-long discussions. The major parts of the bill address net neutrality and mobile roaming charges. Following the 27 October plenary vote in Parliament, EU telecoms regulator BEREC has nine months to review the legislation.
ICANN was established as a not-for-profit corporation in 1998 with the backing of Washington. The agreement with the US administration has been renewed every three years up to the last renewal, signed in 2006. ICANN is responsible for defining Internet domains, such as .com or .eu and for managing the Internet core directory. The EU and other countries around the world have acknowledged the success story of the US-born internet, but have increasingly challenged the United States' sole control of internet governance.