Americans won big on net neutrality in February, when the FCC voted to adopt new rules that would allow it to rein in the abusive and discriminatory practices of big telecommunications operators, such as blocking or throttling of Internet data, and charging content providers for access to an Internet “fast lane.”
Four months later, while the dust hasn’t quite settled in the United States (due to court challenges and a defunding bill), here across the Atlantic the fight is still hotting up. The European Commission (the unelected executive body of the European Union) kicked things off in 2013 with a proposal to cover net neutrality, along with other telecommunications topics such as mobile phone roaming charges, in a new Telecommunications Single Market Regulation.
The European Parliament (which Europeans directly elect) responded by laying down its tough demands on net neutrality back in April 2014, in a document that improved on the Commission’s weak proposal [PDF]. The Council of the European Union (a smaller body comprised of European heads of state), responded to the Parliament’s proposal with its own proposal [PDF] in February of this year, which rejected many of the Parliament’s amendments and hedged on some key priniciples.
One of the key areas of difference between the Council and Parliament proposals is that the Council wants to allow net neutrality rules to be suspended for specialised services, such as e-health, even if the provision of these specialised services materially impairs the speed and reliability of general, non-specialized Internet access. The Parliament considers this a loophole, and would like to see specialized services confined to separate communications channels that don’t interfere at all with regular Internet access services.
The Council text also includes irrelevant provisions that carve out space from the net neutrality rules to allow for content blocking laws—child pornography is called out as an example—as well as parental controls and spam filters controlled by the end user. As neither of these are net neutrality issues and deserve to be debated separately, the European Parliament has rightly resisted their inclusion as a digression from the core issues at hand.
All three bodies—the Commission, the Parliament and the Council—need to agree on a common position before the final text goes to the vote and becomes a European Regulation. This takes place in a series of “trialogues”, of which three have taken place so far, the most recent on June 2. With the delivery by the Parliament of a second revised compromise proposal last week, the stage is set for a fourth and final trialogue, probably next week. (For more of the procedural nitty-gritty, you can consult the infographic below from our friends at EDRI.)
A complicating factor in this negotiation is that the Regulation attempts to cover both roaming charges and net neutrality in the same instrument. The extortionate mobile phone roaming charges that Europeans pay are universally disliked, and with good reason. Therefore if the Parliament stands its ground on net neutrality and the entire regulation is held up as a result, it will likely take political heat for blocking needed action on these roaming charges. On the other hand, for as long as the Parliament can take that heat, the linkage of the two issues puts it in a strong position to hold out for the strong rules that it wants, and that European users support.
A campaign website by European digital rights groups at https://www.savetheinternet.eu allows Europeans to contact Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) by phone, e-mail or Twitter for free, to encourage them to stand firm on net neutrality, and insist on a strong regulation rather than a loophole-ridden compromise.