In a major setback for net neutrality, the European Parliament on Tuesday passed widely-maligned internet regulations without the amendments that rights groups said were crucial to protect free speech, democracy, and innovation online.
Wide loopholes in the rules open the door for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to discriminate against networks, speed up or slow down internet traffic, charge companies for faster loading times, and strip users of protections. The legislation passed 500-163.
"Today, Europe took a giant step away from its vision of becoming a world leader in the digital economy," said Anne Jellema, CEO of the digital rights group World Wide Web Foundation. "These weak and unclear net neutrality regulations threaten innovation and free speech. Now, European start-ups may have to compete on an uneven playing field against industry titans, while small civil society groups risk having their voices overwhelmed by well-funded giants."
Paris-based advocacy organization La Quadrature Du Net called the vote "a profound disillusion for all those who, throughout the years, battled to ensure net neutrality in Europe."
"Today [members of Parliament] had the chance to stand their ground against the Council and the Commission but they only showed a timid face in front of the threats to abandon the text or prolongation of the negotiations. By voting this incomplete and non-protective text, they sell off citizens' rights and liberties and they also hamper small and innovative companies, in favor of big telecommunication companies," said La Quadrature legal and policy analysis coordinator Agnès de Cornulier. "They also give a bad signal on their weakness, thus endangering all future negotiations."
Following the vote, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) will have nine months to develop guidelines for state-based agencies, like Ofcom in the United Kingdom, to implement the new rules.
Those guidelines could help consumers and companies regain some of their power amid the rejection of wider net neutrality protections, advocacy groups said—even if it comes by way of future court rulings on those regulations.
"All is not lost," Jellema said. "The European Parliament is essentially tossing a hot potato to the Body of European Regulators, national regulators and the courts, who will have to decide how these spectacularly unclear rules will be implemented. The onus is now on these groups to heed the call of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens and prevent a two-speed Internet."
De Cornulier added, "The task to mend the text's loopholes left by the MEPs now rests on governments deprived of transparency, at the risk of widening them even more, until Justice intervenes and long lasting judiciary procedures set out an uncertain precedence."