Can Europe Hold on to its Net Neutrality?
Members of the European Parliament have given approval to draft legislation that, among other things, would uphold net neutrality: the concept that governments or telecommunication businesses should not discriminate or prescribe different prices based on factors like the individual user, the content they are accessing, the platform, site or application, or the kinds of equipment being used.
The net neutrality language that was adopted on Thursday, April 3 came in the form of amendments to wider legislation seeking to create a single market for telecommunications, thereby allowing the EU to put caps on data roaming charges and international calls so as to ensure that customers know what they are buying, what they will be charged, and that they have the power to change their mind at a later date. Until now, service providers have been charging what many watchdog groups have called exorbitantly high fees for things like accessing the internet while abroad.
The net neutrality provisions, though, express the EU’s commitment to ensuring that different online services, for instance video streaming sites, should not have to pay Internet Service Providers, carriers, data holders or the wider telecoms industry for use of their services simply to offer those products to customers.
The telecoms industry has argued, for instance, that video streaming services, in particular those offering the highest quality picture services, and all those that require a lot of data transfer, take up a larger proportion of their available resources. As such, the telecoms firms believe that the only way they can ensure that they can meet their costs is to charge companies accordingly. An example of this in action would be Netflix, which in America is paying cable companies to privilege its services with the highest quality streaming available, thereby delivering to customers an improved viewing experience.
The problem, and one that communications companies seem keen to ignore, is that this kind of act actually runs perilously close to making the internet a paid for landscape, something that goes against the ideals for which the internet is meant to stand. For instance, while of course Netflix and other similar companies can afford to pay and will see returns, monetizing in this way could and probably would strangle smaller online businesses who wouldn’t be able afford those fees. This in turn would mean that only big players — usually American tech giants and retailers like Microsoft or Amazon — would be able to survive on the Internet as serious competitors as only they would have access to the best quality networks.
While those involved in providing internet services argue that net neutrality legislation like that which the EU has considered is damaging to business competition and consumer choice, net neutrality advocates argue the exact opposite: that this is the only way to keep the internet a space where even the smallest of start-ups gets (at least in these terms) equal footing with the big players.
There are concessions in the EU bill, however, which, despite data providers crowing, appear to give them a great deal of scope to still make money. For instance, cable companies can still sell access to higher quality data networks — they just have to insure that this access doesn’t affect access on lower quality networks or the existing infrastructure.
That said, and despite Thursday’s vote, the legislation still faces a number of hurdles before it can become law. A newly elected European Parliament will need to give final approval to the proposal after May, and each of the EU’s member states will need to sign on to the changes. The wider telecom bill will likely be ratified, but the vote on net neutrality language on Thursday was narrow and, given the heavy lobbying that is being done on both sides of this issue, it is likely to remain contentious.
For instance, big companies like Vodafone and BT remain against the changes, saying that the voluntary code that companies are currently using has been enough to ensure proper conduct. However, not all streaming services are against the change. The BBC, which now has a great deal of online content, has welcomed the EU’s strong statement on net neutrality, saying:
“The open internet remains a key distribution platform for existing offers like BBC iPlayer and innovative new services. New EU laws could help sustain these benefits and be a welcome addition to the safeguards around the successful open internet model in the UK.”
If the EU can manage to pass the net neutrality provision after the May elections, then the bill should become law by the end of the year. What will be interesting to see is if this can prompt a rethink on net neutrality among American legislators or whether it will be up to the FCC to use its powers to try to preserve net neutrality in the United States.
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