In 2014, it really looked like Europe was moving towards strong net neutrality, while the US was going to allow for special fast lanes on the internet. In 2015... everything has gone the other way. The US passed real
net neutrality rules, while Europe has not only decided to kill net neutrality, but has done so in a way where they pretend
that they're actually supporting net neutrality.
In some way, this isn't a surprise. EU Digital Commissioner Gunther Oettinger recently mocked net neutrality and its supporters, saying they had turned it into a "Taliban-like" issue
. Then a month ago, rumors started to fly that the weekly "trialogue" meetings between the EU Commission, the Council of the EU and the EU Parliament was looking to ditch net neutrality
altogether. Instead, it appears that the final solution was actually to redefine net neutrality to pretend they were offering it
, while really killing it. And, as a consolation prize, they're killing off roaming charges around Europe (which can be pretty extreme). But that is little consolation for the fact that they're actually destroying net neutrality in the process.
The little trick being pulled by politicians who apparently think the public is too stupid to understand this is to redefine net neutrality. First, they claim that the "open internet" is really important and they won't allow paid prioritization. This part all sounds good:
The rules enshrine the principle of net neutrality into EU law: no blocking or throttling of online content, applications and services. It means that there will be truly common EU-wide Internet rules, contributing to a single market and reversing current fragmentation.
- Every European must be able to have access to the open Internet and all content and service providers must be able to provide their services via a high-quality open Internet.
- All traffic will be treated equally. This means, for example, that there can be no paid prioritisation of traffic in the Internet access service. At the same time, equal treatment allows reasonable day-to-day traffic management according to justified technical requirements, and which must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic.
Sounds good, right? But there's a pretty big catch. Those rules and the "open internet" don't cover what most people think of as the internet. Instead, it's been boxed in. Because the deal also creates a made up new categorization known as "specialized services" where such prioritization will
What are specialised services (innovative services or services other than Internet access services)?
The new EU net neutrality rules guarantee the open Internet and enable the provision of specialised or innovative services on condition that they do not harm the open Internet access. These are services like IPTV, high-definition videoconferencing or healthcare services like telesurgery. They use the Internet protocol and the same access network but require a significant improvement in quality or the possibility to guarantee some technical requirements to their end-users that cannot be ensured in the best-effort open Internet. The possibility to provide innovative services with enhanced quality of service is crucial for European start-ups and will boost online innovation in Europe. However, such services must not be a sold as substitute for the open Internet access, they come on top of it.
Got it? The "regular" internet has no fast lanes. But... right over here, we have the "specialized services" part of the internet which, you know, kinda looks like a fast lane. Because it is. So, now, basically, in Europe you can buy your way into the fast lane by claiming your services are "specialized" and watching as the regular internet pokes along at slower speeds.
The agreement does a lot of handwaving to pretend this doesn't destroy net neutrality, but the more handwaving they do, the more obvious it is that the politicians here know exactly what they're doing:
By allowing the provision of innovative services, are we not promoting a two-tier Internet?
No. Every European must be able to have access to the open Internet and all content and service providers will be able to provide their services via a high-quality open Internet. But more and more innovative services require a certain transmission quality in order to work properly, such as telemedicine or automated driving. These and other services that can emerge in the future can be developed as long as they do not harm the availability and the quality of the open Internet.
Therefore it is important to have future proof rules which, while fully safeguarding the open Internet, allow market operators to provide services with specific quality requirements in order to provide them in safe manner. It is not a question of fast lanes and slow lanes - as paid prioritisation is not allowed, but of making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized and that no one is forced to pay for a service that is not needed.
Oh, and of course, the new rules allow zero rating
, which is the sneaky trick by which telcos use data caps to backdoor in preferential treatment to those willing to pay, while pretending this is some sort of benefit to consumers. The EU sees no problem with this, despite the fact that it enables large internet companies to squeeze out startups and smaller players.
What is zero rating?
Zero rating, also called sponsored connectivity, is a commercial practice used by some providers of Internet access, especially mobile operators, not to count the data volume of particular applications or services against the user's limited monthly data volume.
Zero rating does not block competing content and can promote a wider variety of offers for price-sensitive users, give them interesting deals, and encourage them to use digital services. But we have to make sure that commercial practices benefit users and do not in practice lead to situations where end-users' choice is significantly reduced. Regulatory authorities will therefore have to monitor and ensure compliance with the rules.
Of course, Digital Commissioner Oettinger inadvertently appeared to confirm that this is the end of net neutrality with his poorly worded tweet
on the subject, in which he notes that this is "the end of roaming and net neutrality."
Obviously, he only meant "the end of" to apply to roaming, but having it cover net neutrality as well would be a lot more accurate. Either way, while Oettinger once compared it to a Taliban-like issue, his response has been more on the Orwellian side of things. So long as they redefine the words, the government hopes no one will notice what they actually did. It's the public officials' way of thinking that they're clever and that the public is stupid. That seems like an unwise assumption.