Rekindling Net Neutrality: Our meeting with EU telecoms regulators

You may recall Access Now’s coalition work through the campaign — and its offspring The Final Countdown — to push through Net Neutrality protections in the EU. After the European Parliament adopted the Telecoms Single Market (TSM) in October,  digital rights advocates in Europe and around the world voiced concerns that the text does not properly ensure Net Neutrality; however, to a great extent it does. That said, the text is ambiguous and there remain ways it could be exploited to subvert its purpose. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) is tasked with addressing these remaining ambiguities, developing guidelines that will give concrete meaning to the adopted rules.

Access Now, together with a small group of representatives from civil liberties and consumer groups, was invited to meet with BEREC and contribute to this Net Neutrality regulatory process. That meeting took place on Tuesday. Here’s a look at what happened.

The issues at stake

The agenda for the stakeholder meeting centered around four key issue areas, as identified by the National Regulatory Authorities:

  • The kinds of traffic management practices which will be allowed under the new rules;
  • The role and nature of specialised services and how they relate to users’ rights;
  • The parameters of internet access quality (e.g. speeds, latency) on which internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to provide information;
  • The extent to which “commercial practices”, such as zero-rating, could co-exist with the new rules.

Our evidence

Access Now’s full submission, delivered to the regulators at the meeting, can be found here (PDF).

We provided evidence that sub-internet offers, and zero-rating practices as a category, are clearly prohibited under the EU Net Neutrality rules. These offers blatantly limit users’ rights to receive and impart information over the whole internet, as safeguarded in the TSM. We demonstrated that the TSM guarantees agnostic treatment of traffic, and sets obligations for ISPs to be transparent about their practices. In our extensive written response, we further explain how regulators can play an essential role in protecting the European internet users, from harmonizing terminology for the telecoms sector, to putting transparency and fundamental rights at the core of telecoms policy.

Our high-level points for this stakeholder consultation are as follows:

  • Rules on traffic management and its exceptions, in particular regarding congestion management, must be clarified to avoid abuse and ensure agnostic treatment of traffic.
  • Specialised services criteria must be based on technical, not commercial, considerations, and ensure compliance with the objective of the Regulation to safeguard access to the open internet.
  • Commercial practices such as zero rating limiting users’ right to freedom of expression and of communication must be prevented.
  • Specific and verifiable information on the transparency obligation and the use of monitoring techniques must be provided.

What’s next

Following our meeting, BEREC met with content providers and ISPs to hear their views on the TSM. BEREC guidelines, which we hope will solidify Net Neutrality across the European Union, must be finished by 29 August 2016, as provided by the TSM.

No further meetings with civil society are currently scheduled until mid June 2016, when a four-week public consultation period will open, allowing for comment on any remaining concerns. Access Now, along with the other civil society representatives at the meeting, raised serious concerns about this limited-consultation process. BEREC guidelines are likely to influence Net Neutrality debates beyond EU borders, and preventing meaningful users’ participation in this process would be a significant missed opportunity, and could undermine the entire process.

We will keep updating you as the process unfolds. The fight for Net Neutrality in the EU continues!

Image credit: Pexels