So far 2015 had been looking like a good year for proponents of net neutrality, with the somewhat unexpected victory in the US that came with the FCC passing new regulations, strictly enforcing net neutrality on a 3-2 vote. However, there was a bit of an upset last week in the European battle over net neutrality when some of the widely-praised and popular proposals for telecommunications reforms were back-tracked upon by the European Commission and the majority of the national representatives of the Member States in the European Council. As WIRED UK puts it;
Less than a year after the European Parliament voted to enshrine net neutrality in law, the principle has come under attack by the European Commission.
The story of net neutrality has been a rather different one in the US and Europe, due in part to regulatory differences, attitudes and perhaps differing levels of competition in the telecommunications industry (with Europe generally seen as more competitive and with more choice than the an American market largely dominated by a few key players). I have written before about the somewhat different background to net neutrality in Europe, although was at the time expecting a more pro-net-neutrality result in the European theatre of war and a less positive one in the American. Oh, how I was wrong. For the time being at least, it seems that the US will have distinctly stricter regulations in place to protect net neutrality than Europe – though this has been and will doubtlessly continue to be challenged.
The original European telecommunications reforms package was put together by former Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes and was approved by the European Parliament in March 2014. These reforms were generally well-received, though with some of course warning that they constituted over-regulation and would hamper innovation, with others criticising the rules as being too weak and worrying that they did not go far enough in forbidding internet fast-lanes, or “specialist services”. These new reforms also contained a very popular elimination of roaming fees within Europe, with the aim of creating a truly single market for telecoms services. Some of the safeguards included also focused on net neutrality, particularly the “negative” aspects of net neutrality, such as banning service providers from blocking or slowing (throttling) Internet services provided by competitors.
I had my reservations regarding the future of net neutrality as part of the new telecoms package, especially given the less left-wing/techno-progressive make-up of the European Parliament since the last elections in 2014, and of course the Commission and Council’s somewhat more conservative attitude towards regulation in this area. Nonetheless, I, and many others, am still shocked by quite what a reversal of policy seems to have occurred last week. Although last week’s vote was not the work of the European Parliament, their new make-up could have an effect on their readiness to regulate in this area now that the plans are going back to the drawing board. Part of the problem here is of course the somewhat convoluted legislative process in the EU, which, given the amount of time it takes to prepare such a large scale reform as the telecoms reform, opens itself up to complications when the make-up of the Parliament, Council or Commissions changes. Joshua Barrie explains it thus;
The Council of the EU is different to the European Council, which directs the general political direction and priorities of the EU and is currently presided over by Donald Tusk. The former, meanwhile, operates with a “rotating presidency” policy. It changes between member states every 6 months. And during that time, the presidency chairs meetings and discussions to push plans and legislation forward. Its members consist of relevant ministers when discussing particular topics, such as telco issues.
In November 2014, the Council of the EU, then run by Italy, said it wanted “compromise” on the issue of net neutrality, and heralded a “non-discriminatory and proportionate” plan — it didn’t want some people to have a lesser internet than others. But it also didn’t want the internet to be “anti-competitive.”
Duncan Geere, writing for WIRED UK, sums up the rather widespread shock at and opposition to this reversal of fortunes for the net neutrality camp;
The proposals did not go unopposed. More than 100 MEPs signed a letter to the Telecoms council that accused it of “lacking ambition”. “Weakened proposals on net neutrality go against the European Parliament’s repeated calls for clear definitions,” it read. “We call on you to have clearly defined net neutrality rules for Europe.”
Marietje Schaake, the net neutrality spokesperson from the fourth largest group of MEPs, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, was even more scathing of the decision. “Current proposals are ambivalent, and can lead to commercial practices that go against consumer interests, against innovative startups, and against fair competition in the digital economy,” she said. “The European Parliament has repeatedly called for strong net neutrality; the Council should show ambition in doing the same.”
Having mentioned at the outset that many of these proposed reforms were widely-praised and popular (certainly within the European Parliament and with many of the citizens), the question might be raised as to what on earth could inspire such a drastic reversal? In addition to the understandable influence of the European Commission generally being the more restrained and conservative wing of the European legislative process, it seems that there has been a great deal of industry lobbying against these proposed reforms. Roaming charges in particular are unlikely to be removed by the planned deadline at the end of this year, as the Member States also voted in favour of a delay in implementing this reform. The charges could now remain until at least 2018, when the issue might be discussed again. This move in particular seems like it is the result of lobbyist pressure from the telecommunications industry. Joshua Barrie, writing for Business Insider UK, points out the large-scale meddling on the part of telecoms players in this fight;
But there’s a problem. There are lots of different countries in the EU, with lots of different telecoms CEOs. And they have serious weight in legislative issues. The European Commission (which proposes legislation and runs the EU day-to-day) has a big project called the “Digital Single Market.” It’s all about deciding the future of digital technologies in Europe — and involves the telecoms companies. Net neutrality features in all of that.
So after the European Parliament announced its intention to boost net neutrality, telecoms companies such as Deutsche Telekom and Orange SA were annoyed. The Wall Street Journal wrote last year that they were fighting with lawmakers over the situation. Obviously, having the power to offer premium services at higher costs (something that net neutrality would prevent) would be good for network providers
This sort of behavior is unsurprising, and not hard to find examples of, opposition to net neutrality is widespread in the telecoms industry, for a range of reasons, both good and bad. Many less-than-admiring comments were made about the concept of net neutrality and its place in EU regulation at the Santander Telecoms Summit in Spain on the 1st of November 2014, a hive of telecoms CEOs and other such industry-types – many called for a reduction in European competition law measures, complaining that the lack of large oligopolies makes telecoms policy in Europe difficult. Neelie Kroes’ response to this was “[my] advice to telcos is to be constructive”, warning that net neutrality was “inevitable”…
For the time being it seems however that regulations strictly enshrining net neutrality in EU law is far from inevitable. The proponents of net neutrality may have to wait somewhat longer to celebrate their VE Day.