A missed opportunity for net neutrality in Europe

Today the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament voted on the European Telecoms Single Market proposal. With its provisions that put net neutrality at risk, this contentious E.U. legislation will have a critical impact on how European users experience the internet since across the continent.

ITRE adopted the report put forward by Pilar Del Castillo, a conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is in charge of the telecoms file, while rejecting alternative amendments introduced by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), led by MEP Catherine Trautmann (see Access and EDRi’s comparative analysis here). While not perfect, Trautmann’s alternate proposal would have brought legal certainty to the text and fixed several loopholes left in Del Castillo’s proposal. By adopting Del Castillo’s report, the ITRE Committee missed an opportunity to stand up for the open internet while rejecting network discrimination.

Negotiations in the European Parliament

The proposal, first tabled by Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes in September 2013, was reviewed and debated by five committees before ITRE. Today’s vote was originally scheduled for the end of February but was strategically deferred. The delay should have led to improvements in the text, but instead the committee adopted Del Castillo’s original version without changes. The existence of two competing compromise amendments shows that this vote is not one born from compromises. Del Castillo overlooked the views of the majority of the EPP throughout the negotiations and delivered this unfortunate proposal that would harm internet users.

One of the key problems in the proposal is the broad definition of “specialised services” that does not provide clear legal guidance to regulators and companies. “Specialised services” should be limited to services provided by ISPs, such as IPTV, and should not be confused with services on the open internet, like YouTube or Spotify.

If the definition in Castillo’s report should make it through plenary, and the E.U. allows telcos to rewire the internet so commercial agreements become the norm, telcos would be able to pick and choose winners and losers among content and application services in the market. The proposal would create a new monopoly: access to the customers of big telcos. This would have a damaging impact on competition, choice, and innovation.

Over the past five years, the European Parliament has repeatedly pledged itself to net neutrality (see here and here) but today’s vote in ITRE blatantly contradicts those declarations of intent. We urge Parliamentarians from across party lines to seize this long awaited opportunity to preserve the dynamic and transformative nature of the internet.

The outcome of the negotiations on net neutrality will set a precedent around the world. The debate is not new, but the threat has never been so real, with legislation underway from Brussels to Brazil. The recent Netflix/Comcast in the United States is warning of things to come if countries don’t protect the free and open internet.

Next steps

This vote casts serious concerns on the future of the internet, but the final challenge for net neutrality is yet to come.

ITRE was the last committee to vote on the proposal before it is sent to the plenary on April 3, when the entire European Parliament will vote and adopt its final position. Since the text can be amended before the vote takes place, the European Parliament still has the opportunity to protect users’ rights by enshrining net neutrality into E.U. law.

Access, together with a network of NGOs across Europe, launched savetheinternet.eu, an online platform where people can learn more about the importance of net neutrality, the current ITRE proposal, and directly contact MEPs to voice their objection to Del Castillo’s harmful proposal. This site is available in nine languages and allows users to call, email, or fax MEPs (free of charge).

Europeans have 18 days to save the internet, take action now!