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"Zero rating is the opposite of net neutrality, the notion that all data on the internet should be treated equally," digital rights group Access Now previously explained. (Photo: Tim Carter/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

'Huge Victory for Net Neutrality': Top EU Court Rebuffs Zero-Rating Schemes

The open internet win comes from the Court of Justice of the European Union's first-ever interpretation of the EU's 2015 net neutrality law.

Andrea Germanos

The European Union's highest court on Tuesday said that so-called "zero-rating" plans that prioritize certain Internet data are "incompatible" with the net neutrality regulations of the 27-country bloc.

Nikolas Guggenberger, executive director the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, called the decision a "huge victory for net neutrality."

"The requirements to protect internet users' rights and to treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner preclude an internet access provider from favouring certain applications and services by means of packages enabling those applications and services to benefit from a 'zero tariff' and making the use of the other applications and services subject to measures blocking or slowing down traffic," the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said in a statement (pdf) about its landmark interpretation of the 2015 net neutrality law.

As Reuters explained, "The European court's judgment came after a Hungarian court had sought guidance in a case involving Hungarian mobile telecoms operator Telenor Magyarorszag which offers its customers preferential or so-called zero-tariff access packages which meant that the use of certain applications did not count towards consumption."

Forbes has more on the background:

At the time of the law's passage, net-neutrality advocates were deeply concerned that loopholes would allow operators to get away with practices that prioritize some traffic over other traffic, for commercial rather than technical reasons. Zero-rating was a particular worry, because the law did not specifically mention it. Therefore, it seemed operators might be able to get away with blocking or slowing down customers' general Internet use once they reached their data caps, while still allowing favored services to run unimpeded.

In fact, zero-rating is "at the heart of the current debate over the future of the free and open internet" and is "antithetical to net neutrality," according to digital rights group Access Now. As the group previously explained:

Zero rating is the opposite of net neutrality, the notion that all data on the internet should be treated equally. Net neutrality is central to maintaining the internet's potential for economic and social development, and to the exercise of human rights such as the right to free expression. Its principles help ensure that that anyone, anywhere in the world, can receive and impart information freely over the internet, no matter where they are, what services they use, or what device they operate. Seen in this light, zero rating is a form of "network discrimination"—it deliberately sets up a system where "the internet" you get is different for different people.

Zero rating programs manifest in different forms, the most frequent being "sub-internet" offers, where only a part of the internet is offered for "free," and what we're calling the "telco" model, where a telco prioritizes either its own content or that of third parties. All forms of zero rating amount to price discrimination, and have in common their negative impact on users' rights.

In light of those threats, Access Now called the CJEU's decision "great news."

"We welcome this decision," the group tweeted, "and hope that it will help bring an end to *all* zero-rating offers in the EU."


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