EU Commission’s plan for a Gigabit society raises concerns for Net Neutrality

This week, the EU Commission has unveiled a new plan for a “European Gigabit Society“, and with it, the first attack on the recently concluded Net Neutrality legislation. The Commission is advocating for the development of high quality networks and 5G, two objectives that we wholeheartedly support — but which should be advanced in a way that respects Net Neutrality and privacy protections for users.

A taste of G society and Net Neutrality

The 5th generation mobile networks, or 5G, would bring much-needed increased internet speeds and coverage for people across the EU. However, this summer, a group of 20 telecoms operators and hardware manufacturers published a “5G Manifesto” in which they threatened to withhold 5G investment unless the European Union waters down its rules on Net Neutrality. In response, a coalition of more than 30 NGOs from around the world sent an open letter to policy-makers encouraging them to support the development and  implementation of robust Net Neutrality rules alongside the deployment of high-quality broadband and next-generation networks. While the telecoms regulators have so far resisted the telcos’ blatant blackmail, unfortunately this is not the case for the Commission.

The Commission is looking into the development of high-capacity networks for the “delivery of video and audio content in gaming and streaming”. This could lead to the creation of separate fast lanes on the network that would contradict the Net Neutrality provisions whereby some content is being prioritised. The availability of high-quality network should benefit the internet as a whole, not just specific services or applications. Lawmakers should respect Net Neutrality when adopting frameworks to support the “gigabit connectivity” for “digitally intensive enterprises”.

The Commission’s proposal offers upside-down protections for network operators — rather than internet users — by referring to “a level playing field [to] ensure that network operators are not at a disadvantage when they also provide communications services”. This is an interesting approach considering that, given their control of access to the network, operators already have a significant advantage over online services; something that Net Neutrality rules are attempting to mitigate to avoid abuses and discriminatory practices. The “level playing field” the Commission seeks should be about ensuring that users have equal access to next-generation networks.

Finally, the Commission believes that “sectorial rules should not distort competition between traditional operators and new communications platforms”. While we agree that both telecoms operators and communications platforms should abide by privacy and data protection rules, telecoms-style licensing should be limited to traditional operators. A mandatory licensing proposal for online communications services would contradict Net Neutrality and, in particular, the “innovation without permission” principle whereby anyone can offer a new service or product online without having to pay for an entry fee.

Human rights and security

From a human rights angle, it is problematic that the Commission’s communication does not explicitly refer to fundamental rights, to privacy in particular. The 5G plan forecasts a “major reform of the regulatory framework for electronic communications” and the establishment of a “more efficient EU system of electronic communications regulators”. The changes could ultimately benefit users if the Commission adequately modifies the plan from an industry-focused approach to a user-centric proposal.

The plan ambitiously aims to extend 5G on both mobile and fixed landline, and to connect “users and objects on the move”, including drones. Connectivity, however, must not come at the detriment to privacy and security. The real question goes beyond access and is about the type and quality of connectivity that is offered. Although the plan acknowledges that reliability of networks is necessary, it does not put enough emphasis on the security implications. Among other issues, the ultimate “free Wi-Fi for Europe” goal and Internet of Things strategy need further considerations and clarification.

Next steps

The Commission’s European Gigabit Society communication triggers other European institutions to weigh in. The European Parliament can put together an opinion report prior the presentation of a legislative proposal by the European Commission. On our side, Access Now will continue to ensure the protection of fundamental rights for internet users, including through careful monitoring of the enforcement of Net Neutrality rules and protecting the confidentiality of communications.