Europe just dealt a major blow to net neutrality.
On Tuesday afternoon, the European Parliament voted against all amendments to a package on the European single market for electronic communications – raising fears among activists, tech companies, and NGOs that the proposals as they currently stand fail to properly protect net neutrality.
The proposals also end mobile roaming charges on the continent by 2017.
Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the web should be treated equally, and that people should not be able to pay for preferential “fast lanes” online, nor should poorer consumers be restricted to “slow lanes.” The advantage of neutral treatment of internet traffic is that it puts huge companies like Google on the same competitive playing field as a tiny one-person startup. (In fact, Google in its early days generated so much traffic it overwhelmed servers at Stanford, and the company only survived because it was able to get net-neutral service.)
The disadvantage is that the companies that build the internet infrastructure end up spending excessive sums to service certain huge companies, but can’t get them to pay for that traffic.
— Andrus Ansip (@Ansip_EU) October 27, 2015
The proposals ostensibly uphold the net neutral principle, but internet activists are concerned that they contain multiple loopholes, and do no such thing.
There is a provision that allows for preferential services for “specialised services,” for example. This might be used for self-driving vehicles or medical data, but there are fears that this exemption is too broadly defined, and may be abused.
Ahead of the vote, a spokesperson for digital rights group EDRi – who has been campaigning for amendments – told Business Insider that the vote is legally binding, and will likely come into effect in November. EDRi says it will attempt to work with European data regulator BEREC to make sure that “the vagueness of the text is resolved.”
Reacting to the vote, MEP Marietje Schaake said that it was a “missed opportunity.” In a statement, the Dutch politician said that “too much attention was given to the interests of national telecom companies and too little to those of internet users and the economy of the future. This has led to vague texts on net neutrality, which compromises the open internet.”
One of the key opponents to the European Parliament proposals is a coalition digital rights groups and NGOs called “Save The Internet.” It includes European Digital Rights (EDRi), the British Open Rights Group (ORG), La Quadrature du Net in France, and Reporters Without Borders.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is also a critic. He says that “if adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy.”
Dozens of tech companies also signed a letter opposing the proposals, including BitTorrent, EyeEm, Foursquare, Kickstarter, Netflix, Reddit, Transferwise, Vimeo, and YPlan. “These problems jeopardize the future of the startup innovation and economic growth in the EU. They also create barriers for U.S. startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market,” the letter reads. “We believe that the future of the open Internet in Europe is at stake and urgent action is warranted.”
In a statement following the vote, executive director of EDRi Joe McNamee said that “the European Parliament has avoided making decisions on all crucial points … Now, national regulators will have to decide – on abuses imposed through ‘zero rating’, on rules on congestion management, on specialised services and so on.”
Four key problems.
In a blog post published last week, Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick laid out what she says are the four key problems with the European Parliament’s proposed rules. These are:
>“The proposal allows ISPs to create fast lanes for companies that pay through the specialized services exception.” This exemption is intended for “specialized services” – like medical data, say – but van Schewick argues that the exception is “too broad,” and that “in many cases, it still allows ISPs to offer fast lanes by calling them a specialized service. “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.” If a service is zero-rated, it doesn’t count towards a users’ bandwidth cap or usage costs. This means companies could pay ISPs to be zero-rated – once again creating an unequal internet. “The proposal allows ISPs to define classes and speed up or slow down traffic in those classes, even if there is no congestion.” ISPs could still choose to discriminate against certain kinds of data (like peer-to-peer torrenting, for example). Van Schewick worries that because ISPs will not be able to identify what “class” encrypted data fits in, they will simply put them in the slowest lane – as has happened before. This will discourage the use of encryption, and make the internet less secure. “The proposal allows ISPs to start managing congestion in the case of impending congestion. That means that they can slow down traffic anytime, not just during times of actual congestion.” Van Schewick thinks this will be used as an excuse for discriminatory traffic management, “using the justification that congestion was just about to materialise.”