European Telecoms Single Market: A false promise for net neutrality?

After six months of negotiations, the European Parliament will finally vote on the proposal for a Telecoms Single Market in one week. This proposal was initially designed to deliver the promise of enshrining net neutrality as law across Europe. Yet unless the European Parliament rises to the challenge next week, they may actually end up undermining net neutrality through unclear and confusing legislation.

Smoke and mirrors

At a recent event organised by the European Internet Foundation (EIF), Roberto Viola, Deputy Director General at the European Commission, unintentionally revealed that the prime objective behind the Telecoms proposal, is not to ensure net neutrality but promote so-called “specialised services”.

The definition of “specialised services” put forward by the European Commission has been criticized for undermining core principles of nondiscrimination online. According to Roberto Viola, the present definition aims to create a “special lane for high consuming services”, such as video or social media services which are available today free of charge.

Under this definition of “specialised services,” telecommunications companies will be positioned to become internet gatekeepers, controlling innovation, strangling competition, and ultimately restricting freedom of expression online.

Viola’s unintentional revelation adds to the long list of the European Commission’s tactics used to distract parliamentarians from the core objective of protecting net neutrality. Primarily, the Telecoms proposal has been loaded with unrelated policy issues regarding spectrum, the open internet and new rules on roaming charges which have already been addressed in previous legislation.

Furthermore, while the Telecoms proposal was ready last summer, the Commission decided to formally present the proposal to the European Parliament only in September 2013, forcing them to adopt a ridiculously tight timeline to debate and vote on this proposal before the upcoming elections in May 2014.

During this process, the European Commission ignored internal criticism regarding the harmful impacts the current Telecoms proposal will have on entrepreneurs and the fundamental rights of European citizens.

The European Commission also ignored serious concerns raised by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). This group of European experts in charge of promoting an efficient telecoms market that maximizes benefits for consumers and businesses alike, clearly identified the provisions included in the Telecoms proposal as being “counterproductive” to that end.

Hope for net neutrality in Europe?

Despite a tight timeline, almost all parliamentary committees involved in the Telecoms proposal managed to add necessary improvements to the text and adopt provisions safeguarding against network discrimination.

Regrettably, the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, in charge of the Telecoms proposal in the Parliament, rejected many of the improvements suggested by other committees in the final version of the proposal adopted prior to submission to the European Parliament’s vote next week. When push came to shove, the ITRE Committee followed the committee’s chair, Ms. Pilar del Castillo, questionable defense of the European Commission objectives at the expense of net neutrality.

Time to step up

Despite these setbacks, the European Parliament has a golden opportunity to prevent anti-competitive, anti-innovation policies by enshrining net neutrality into law across Europe in the Telecoms proposal’s final vote on April 3.

Ever since Commissioner Neelie Kroes took office in 2009, she has reiterated her promise to protect net neutrality. Talk is cheap: Her constant verbal support for net neutrality has never wavered. However, the Telecoms Single Market proposal she put forward betrays the real message. As a member of her cabinet put it to a journalist last year: “net neutrality legislation was a terrible idea” as far as the Commission is concerned.

However, if the European Parliament rises to the challenge, amending the problematic loopholes in the Commission’s text, public Kroes might get what private Kroes has been fighting against.

As for Members of the European Parliament, it is time to stop network discrimination in its tracks by enshrining net neutrality into EU law. It is time to stand up for a free and open internet. It’s time to vote in favour of net neutrality and support the “open internet” alternative proposals put forward by four political groups the Socialists & Democrats, Liberals (ALDE), Greens, and the European United Left (GUE).

Now is the time to take action! Head to savetheinternet.eu to call, email or fax members of the European Parliament.