GENEVA, March 10, 2015 — Internet history was made last month in the United States as the Federal Communications Commission voted to regulate Internet service as a public good and enforce Net Neutrality. But in the wake of the U.S. ruling against a “two-speed” Internet, it seems Europe is choosing a different direction.
“Net Neutrality” is often explained as the belief that the Internet is a public utility, much like water or electricity. This definition of the Internet, which the FCC enforced in the United States, stands against the desire of many service providers who wish to split the Internet into fast and slow “lanes.” These fast lanes were to be premium speed Internet services which would have to be paid for by private companies. This raised concerns of an uneven playing field, with smaller start-ups or streaming services such as Netflix being forced to pay higher rates to keep their business functional or stay competitive.
In the U.S., protests by social media and a high number of complaints filed with the FCC culminated with their ruling in favor of Net Neutrality on February 26.
But the case of Net Neutrality has taken a starkly different turn in Europe with the most recent proposal favoring “specialized” Internet services. The EU’s digital tsar even went so far as to define the enforcement of net neutrality as “Taliban-like”.
A proposal put forward by the Latvian presidency of the European Council stipulates that telecom firms can enter into agreements with individuals or corporations to provide faster Internet services for higher prices. This has been characterized as a way of allowing a better management of Internet traffic flows, emphasizing the idea that the yet-undefined “specialized services” will not impair other user’s connections. There are rumors that such services refer to connected cars or emergency services.
This plan differs dramatically from the one proposed less than a year ago when the European Parliament voted in favor of reforms put together by former EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes which included measures supporting Net Neutrality. And the proposal is also notable in it coming so soon after the FCC’s decision to support a neutral Internet. But timing isn’t the only interplay between the U.S. and Europe in this decision.
The telecommunications sector in Europe has been under threat in recent years from the influence of U.S. Internet companies such as Facebook and Google and the “free” services they offer. This has left the diminishing telecom sector to find new ways of charging for data and Internet access in an attempt to recoup the losses incurred from diminishing voice and messaging revenues, as the European Union is slowly abolishing roaming charges.
Tim Höttges, chief executive of Deutsche Telekom noted, “We need a level playing field with the internet companies. If these guys are out of regulation, then we want to be out of regulation too,” he added. “Is Facebook a communications service? Definitely yes. Is [Google] Hangouts a communications service? Definitely yes. But they are not being defined as such.”
To this effect, the Council of the European Union has reportedly suggested that the telecom operators be allowed to continue enforcing their roaming charges and even add surcharges to their domestic rates. The denial of Net Neutrality, along with these measures is a step towards the financial recovery for the telecom sector, or so the argument goes.
And with the proposal of the European Commission’s “Connected Continent” package, which holds Net Neutrality as one of its core tenants, the telecom companies are under immediate threat.
Steven Tas, representative of some of the largest telecom groups in Europe stated, “the Connected Continent regulation is now a set of rules on net neutrality and roaming. This makes it even more urgent to address reform of the current telecom regulation. Let’s not tie the hands of an entire industry with tight net neutrality rules. Users and business will benefit from pro-innovation and pro-investment rules”.
With representatives like Tas characterizing Net Neutrality as a suffocating and anti-competitive measure, it is clear that this is ducking the very question the FCC focused on: who is the internet for? The FCC ruled that the Internet was for everyone equally; so far it seems that the European Parliament believes everyone is equal, but that some are simply more equal than others.
Knowing the hoops and red tape proposals have to navigate before becoming law, it is unlikely that the question of Net Neutrality will be settled in Europe anytime soon. But as the debate continues it is difficult to not feel concerned for the future of the Internet in Europe. As some industry experts scoff at the concept of a “neutral” Internet, one is reminded that our world, virtual and beyond, has been shaped by a neutral Internet, not an Internet compromised.