Kroes sidesteps net neutrality at Access event

Giusy Cannella contributed to this post.

A week after Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes requested that the European Parliament help save European citizens’ “right to access the open internet by guaranteeing net neutrality” in a speech on May 30 in Brussels, Kroes avoided language that would have directly supported net neutrality while speaking at a panel event organized by Access at the European Parliament.

In her speech, Kroes identified “transparency,” “consumer choice,” and the ability for consumers to switch providers without encountering “countless obstacles” as key priorities, rather than endorsing net neutrality. “For me, an open platform is built on competition, innovation transparency, and choice,” she said.

The Access event, entitled “Guaranteeing competition and the open internet in Europe,” was co-hosted by ALDE European Parliament member Marietje Schaake and EPP Parliament member Sabine Verheyen. Following Kroes’ keynote speech, representatives and experts from European Institutions, civil society, and industry sector groups offered expert testimony on network neutrality.

While Kroes said that the internet is a “a great place to exercise and enjoy liberty”, she seemed to support the idea that operators should offer different types of internet since “different users have different network needs.” Her statements seemed to retreat from a May 30 speech to the European Parliament, in which Kroes urged Parliament members, “I want you to be able to say that you saved their right to access the open internet, by guaranteeing net neutrality.”

In her talk, she cited a 2011 study by European regulators which found that that 20% of European citizens are subject to arbitrary restrictions on fixed access, with 36% on mobile connections. “It’s clear to me that many Europeans expect protection against some commercial tactics,” she said. However, she didn’t propose any concrete solutions to this growing problem, emphasising transparency and competition over regulation. “With genuine transparency, I doubt many consumers would care to buy such a limited product. I doubt many ISPs would dare to offer one,” she said.

Access Senior Policy Analyst Raegan MacDonald also spoke on the panel about the importance of enshrining net neutrality into law: currently, of all the European Union countries, only the Netherlands and Slovenia have done so. “Ensuring that the internet remains neutral and universal in the EU is important not only to protect the rights of EU citizens but also for citizens around the world, particularly as the EU consistently serves as a global-standard setter in the preservation and promotion of civil rights,” MacDonald said. “These principles of openness are under strain in Europe.”

MacDonald cited a study by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality,” which showed that despite the benefits offered to citizens and operators from a neutral platform, operators more often favor their own services and prioritize short-term over long-term interests. “If businesses believe that it is not in their best interest to be neutral, then it’s clear that neither self-regulation nor soft-law will successfully persuade them to act in a manner that is thought to be contrary to their commercial interests.”

After the keynote speech, MEP Schaake delivered to Kroes an open letter on net neutrality signed by 20 European CEOs and entrepreneurs representing a variety of online businesses. This coalition, including companies like Viber, The Next Web, Storify and WeePee, expressed support in fighting the tendencies of access operators to act as gatekeepers of the internet. The letter stated that, “Such tendencies are harmful to the fundamental rights of users, to new and existing companies counting on the global reach of the internet to launch and grow their businesses and to innovation and the economy in general.”

In the letter, European entrepreneurs called on the European Commission to keep the internet open so that every person is able to send and receive the content, run applications, and use the services of their choice, on the device of their choice. However, the entrepreneurs did not exclude the possibility of traffic management, as long as it was kept to a minimum and deployed for purely technical, legal or security reasons.

For more information, visit our page or check out our Q&A on network discrimination in Europe. Stay tuned for more updates on this issue.