World Wide Web Creator Implores Europe To Protect Net Neutrality

"Europeans deserve the same strong net neutrality protections similar to those recently secured in the United States."
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.  
Should the parliament vote to pass this proposal, unamended, the regulations that Europe will apply to telecommunications companies will be weaker than the strong net neutrality rules that the United States adopted in February. 

"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 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.
"We are more positive about the text of the Regulation than the advocates and groups who are arguing for amendments," Jens-Henrik Jeppesen, the director of European affairs at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told HuffPost. "While the Regulation is not perfect ... it does provide a solid legal basis for ensuring non-discrimination of internet traffic. It provides necessary tools and obligations for regulators to monitor and intervene and deal with business practices that distort competition and harm the open Internet."
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.