Europe votes in net neutrality, but doesn’t ban Internet ‘fast lanes’

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

EU Parliament passes net neutrality law, but tech companies are unhappy.

The European Parliament voted on Tuesday to approve “net neutrality” regulations, but rejected amendments that would have clarified the rules, leaving the European Union with a set of regulations that critics say are too vague. Proponents of net neutrality suffered a major setback Tuesday when European politicians voted against enshrining in law the concept of treating all online data equally. Spanish Parliament member Pilar del Castillo, who originally proposed the text, said the new rules will guarantee an open Internet and that they would prevent Internet providers from offering companies better access to users in exchange for compensation. The bad news: the legislation contains loopholes that could allow “Internet fast lanes”—the very preferential treatment that net neutrality is supposed to restrict. However, the adopted rules allow providers to prioritize the delivery of certain services, and to exempt content from monthly data caps, which critics say could lead to an Internet “fast lane” and “slow lane.” One of the rejected amendments would have specified the circumstances under which Internet providers may prioritize specialized services, such as medical operations and self-driving car data, over other Internet traffic.

This could potentially allow cable companies and other ISPs to favor their own services over competitors, providing so-called fast lanes for their preferred data. Proponents of the bill argued that it makes sense to give priority to such services, but critics such as World Wide Web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee argued that the rules are written in such a way that companies with deep pockets could pay to have their content classified as a “specialized service,” and therefore delivered faster than competitors’ content. The regulations, which have been debated for over two years, also include provisions that prohibit most roaming fees by mobile carriers and ban most forms of traffic discrimination by Internet service providers. The legislation ensures that internet providers will have to give users who sign fixed or mobile internet contracts a clear explanation of what download and upload speeds (compared to the advertised speed) they can usually expect. The latter loophole, critics claim, opens the door for big Internet companies to do sweetheart deals with major commercial providers such as Apple Music or Netflix, leaving smaller competitors at a disadvantage.

An consortium of tech companies including Netflix and Reddit criticized the practice, saying it “creates the same harms to innovation and competition as fast lanes as it is typically provided for payment.” Critics say zero-rating allows Internet providers to play favorites by striking deals with some companies to exempt their services from data limits, therefore making them more attractive to consumers. According to Barbara van Schewick, a law professor who directs Stanford’s Centre for Internet and Society, there are several problems with the new law. The approved regulations, together known as the “European Single Market for Electronic Communications,” are similar in many ways to the Open Internet rules implemented in the US earlier this year.

This might sound great for you, but if abused, this means your mobile carrier can push its own content over other services, or accept payments from companies who want access to you 24/7. It is important that the national regulatory authorities take their responsibilities with a consistent and firm application of the rules, and that network operators are fully transparent toward the authorities as well as toward consumers.” This favouritism means companies like Facebook would become a monopoly, and other services you may want to use (say Pinterest or Tumblr) will take up a lot more of your data allowance than Facebook or Twitter. Although this practice is currently illegal in countries such as the Netherlands, the new EU regulations will override this, and gives regulators very limited ability to police it. Starting in June 2017, cellular companies won’t be able to charge customers extra for using data or making calls outside their home countries but still within the EU.

The law also allows your internet provider to manipulate the speed of your internet, even if there isn’t congestion on the network which could mean certain certain types of data – say video – could be prioritised over email or audio. The only exception is a penalty for “permanent roaming,” when a customer uses a SIM card from a country with cheap cell service while living in another country with more expensive service.

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