Internet activists today (30 August) hailed EU regulators’ announcement of new rules to prevent telecoms companies from slowing down some internet traffic as a historic achievement.
The rules are a blueprint for how national watchdogs will enforce the EU net neutrality law that was passed last summer, and were greeted with dismay by large telecoms companies.
A group of campaigners gathered outside the European Commission before BEREC’s announcement. They held signs that said “Victory” and “EU listened”. BEREC is the group of EU regulators.
“I’ve been doing internet freedom campaigning since 2004. This is a historic day,” said Luca Nicotra, a campaigner with Avaaz, the group that organised the rally.
Nicotra said he was “very happy” with the watchdogs’ tough stance on policing telecoms firms that wanted to offer paid prioritised service for some internet traffic. National regulators “cannot disregard this guidance,” he said.
It’s not every day that telecoms regulators get so much positive attention on the streets of Brussels.
Regulators were flooded with around 408,000 responses to a consultation that was open to the public earlier this summer. 90% of responses came from campaign groups that rallied for regulators to prevent telecoms firms from prioritising some internet traffic over others.
On one day in July, 640 responses were lodged in a single minute. Some comments even came from outside the EU.
Staff at the Riga office of BEREC said they even asked their American counterparts for advice on how to manage the overwhelming number of responses.
The US Federal Communications Commission received close to four million comments when it held a similar consultation on its net neutrality rules in 2014.
Large telecoms companies signalled their disappointment over the regulators’ move to rule out many so-called zero rating services that are offered for free with data packages, such as unlimited access to Facebook.
National regulators will approve those services on a case-by-case basis. Under the new guidelines, the watchdogs said they will block zero rating if it interferes with freedom of expression or internet user rights.
Telecoms operators won’t be allowed to offer zero rated services for free if a customer has already used up their data allowance.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), which represents major firms including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, said in a statement that “most of the concerns outlined and described by industry experts have not been taken into account”.
Under the rules, telecoms firms will only be allowed to slow down internet traffic to fix bad quality, not to tamper with speed for commercial gain.
The watchdogs can force companies to stop if they’re found violating the rules, or can issue fines.
ETNO argued that the rules will make it difficult for telecoms firms to provide some services that require high-speed internet, like connected cars. EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger has made connected cars one of his pet projects and started a working group with telecoms firms to develop the technology.
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.