When the European Commission released its draft agreement
for regulating Internet access in July, many people were concerned then that a loophole
would destroy net neutrality
in Europe by creating "fast lanes
" for companies that could pay more. Three months later, those concerns have come to a boil, as the European Parliament prepares to vote on a proposal
(PDF) that has not been amended the way many public interest advocates had hoped.
"If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy," wrote Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, in a post on the Web Foundation's blog
"To underpin continued economic growth and social progress, Europeans deserve the same strong net neutrality protections similar to those recently secured in the United States," Berners-Lee went on. "As a European, and the inventor of the Web, I urge politicians to heed this call. Meanwhile, the Web belongs to all of us, and so it’s up to each one of us to take action. European residents can visit the savetheinternet.eu website today to contact their MEP and ask them to vote for the amendments that will protect the open Internet for us and future generations."
In addition to Berners-Lee, a coalition of tech giants, including startups, investors, public interests and advocates, has written a letter calling upon the European Parliament to fix the proposal by banning four specific practices at Internet service providers, or ISPs:
Fast lanes, in which ISPs offer faster upload and download speeds through an exemption for "specialized services." This is similar to the proposal that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission floated in the spring of 2014 which caused widespread concern before the regulator shifted course. (Verizon, which owns The Huffington Post, is part of a suit against the FCC regarding the legality of its net neutrality rules.)
- "Zero-rating," in which mobile network customers receive free data for certain services that don't count against bandwidth caps.
Class-based discrimination, which would allow ISPs to define different classes of traffic, included encrypted traffic, and speed it up or slow it down.
Impending congestion management, in which ISPs could slow traffic any time, at their discretion.
If these issues aren't addressed, activists warn that the meaning of online access in Europe
could shift, along with the ability of inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers and students to build applications and services that can compete with those offered or developed by incumbent telecommunications providers.
Some observers are, however, more cautious about what will emerge from the European Parliament this week.
In 2014 , when the European Parliament adopted strong net neutrality laws
, it passed into law one of the clearest articulations of the principle:
"Net neutrality" means...all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, recipient, type, content, device, service or application.
How this principle will be applied in Europe has now been thrown up for debate, casting doubt on the future of the open Internet across 28 different countries.
While the Center for Democracy and Technology did acknowledge the concerns, it is also eager to see standard rules voted into place across the EU.
"Some amendments that are now being put forward are valid enough and could improve the text," said Jeppesen, "but we would be concerned that if the European Parliament changes the text at this stage of the process, the Regulation might well fall. Member States would most likely be unwilling to negotiate a new compromise with the Parliament. That would leave us without EU-wide rules on non-discrimination of Internet traffic, except for two countries, [the Netherlands] and Slovenia. That would be a bad outcome."
If this law passes the European Parliament entirely unamended, however, it's hard to see this as anything other than a huge win for European telecommunications companies, with unknown outcomes for hundreds of millions of consumers.