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Future of Europe's Internet On the Line as EU Preps for Net Neutrality Vote

Those who vote to pass weak net neutrality bill without amendments, warns group, "will be the gravediggers of our rights and freedoms"

European activists are pushing for MEPs to adopt a few critical amendments to close the bill's most egregious loopholes. (Photo: Free Press)

The European Parliament is set to vote Tuesday on net neutrality rules that open internet advocates warn are a threat to free speech, privacy, and innovation.

Opponents are calling on European members of Parliament (MEPs) to pass amendments that target four standout problems in the legislation, including granting unlimited power to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to slow down and speed up web traffic at will and use "zero rating" exemptions to protect certain applications from monthly bandwidth caps, among other issues.

The bill—the end result of a June "trilogue" meeting between the European Parliament, the European Union (EU), and the EU Council—has been presented as a bipartisan compromise text, but net neutrality experts say the devil is in the details.

Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford University law professor and director of the school's Center for Internet and Society, outlined the problems with the bill in an article posted on Medium last week, explaining, "The proposal about to be adopted fails to deliver network neutrality to the EU and is much weaker than current net neutrality rules in the United States..... We should ask the Parliament to adopt amendments to ensure an open Internet in Europe."

According to van Schewick, the bill's biggest issues are:

  • The proposal allows ISPs to create fast lanes for companies that pay through the specialized services exception.
  • The proposal generally allows zero-rating and gives regulators very limited ability to police it, leaving users and companies without protection against all but the most egregious cases of favoritism.
  • The proposal allows class-based discrimination, i.e. ISPs can define classes and speed up or slow down traffic in those classes even if there is no congestion.
  • The proposal allows ISPs to prevent “impending” congestion. That makes it easier for them to slow down traffic anytime, not just during times of actual congestion.

European activists are pushing for MEPs to adopt a few critical amendments to close the bill's most egregious loopholes. That includes refining criteria defining "specialized services" to prevent network discrimination; modifying provisions of internet traffic to safeguard equal treatment across the board; clarifying rules for managing network congestion to prevent ISPs from interfering with networks; and allowing EU member states the power to individually address "zero rating" practices.

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As the vote approaches, a coalition of public interest organizations, tech industry leaders, and media authorities is calling on MEPs to adopt those amendments and look to the net neutrality rules implemented earlier this year by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for guidance on crafting democratic internet regulations.

"[The] proposal before the Parliament contains four major problems that undermine network neutrality and threaten to undermine the EU technology industry...These problems jeopardize the future of the startup innovation and economic growth in the EU," the coalition wrote in an open letter (pdf) to Parliament, published Sunday. "They also create barriers for U.S. startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market."

As written, the bill's implications could span international borders.

"If European telcos can slow any website to crawl, or extort payments for special 'zero rating' deals, that affects every one of us, wherever we live," said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of U.S.-based digital rights group Fight for the Future.

Among those taking part in the campaign are digital rights groups like the World Wide Web Foundation, net neutrality experts like van Schewick and Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig, and transatlantic advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, La Quadrature du Net, and Reporters Without Borders.

"Freedom of expression, right to information, free competition and innovation, the European Socialists and Liberals who will vote the text without amendments will be the gravediggers of our rights and freedoms!" wrote La Quadrature du Net in its own letter to MEPs on Monday. "We count on you to support massively the amendments that are the only one that can safeguard a neutral and non discriminatory Internet in Europe."

"The future of the open Internet in Europe is on the line," van Schewick said. "The good news is that it's not too late to change course."

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