Proponents of net neutrality suffered a major setback Tuesday when European politicians voted against enshrining in law the concept of treating all online data equally.
The European Parliament voted against all proposed net neutrality amendments to a bill on the European single market for electronic communications.
The original bill ostensibly upholds the principle of net neutrality, but opponents say it contains a number of loopholes that could lead to a tiered Internet where service providers could deliver data from different sources at different speeds. This could potentially allow cable companies and other ISPs to favor their own services over competitors, providing so-called fast lanes for their preferred data.
The new legislation, which following the vote is now legally binding, allows for the creation of Internet fast lanes for “specialized services” and lets ISPs offer so-called “zero-rating” products — apps and services whose use does not count toward monthly data use. The latter loophole, critics claim, opens the door for big Internet companies to do sweetheart deals with major commercial providers such as Apple Music or Netflix, leaving smaller competitors at a disadvantage.
The legislation puts Europe out of step with the U.S, which has enshrined net neutrality in law despite legal challenges from some big telecoms.
In a statement posted online, Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament for the European Pirate Party, called the new law a “broken promise” on net neutrality.
“The Internet’s open structure is what made it the successful driver of growth and innovation in the digital economy and digital culture that it is today,” she said. “That providers will be allowed to discriminate against certain traffic not only creates a two-tier Internet, it also removes incentives for carriers to extend their capacities.”
But Andrus Ansip, vice president of the EU’s digital single market commission and a supporter of the legislation, argued that it was necessary to push through the new law to avoid “a risk of delays, not only [of] months, but years,” in the implementation of rules for a pan-European digital market — delays that would put European companies, and consumers, at an even greater disadvantage compared to those in the U.S.
The European Broadcasting Union also said that it “believes that the adoption today by the European Parliament of a single, identical set of rules for net neutrality in Europe is a step in the right direction for the digital single market,” calling it “a workable solution.”
EBU head of European affairs Nicola Frank said: “If you look at the big picture, this compromise is a step forward; the text adopted today contains a basic and robust set of rules safeguarding net neutrality for over half a billion people.”
She added: “Many observers have pointed out that there are still many gray zones in the final regulation. A lot now will depend on how the rules are implemented in practice by national regulatory authorities. Key issues, such as media pluralism on the Internet and innovation in the digital economy, are at stake. It is important that the national regulatory authorities take their responsibilities with a consistent and firm application of the rules, and that network operators are fully transparent toward the authorities as well as toward consumers.”
Georg Szalai contributed to this report.