This article was published on 15 April 2015 on The Wall Street Journal. By Valentina Pop.
It’s two years on and lawmakers in the European Parliament are still at odds with national governments about proposed European Union legislation over prioritizing traffic on the Internet and scrapping mobile roaming costs, according to a document laying out the latest state of play in negotiations. Members of the Parliament are trying to hammer out the final version of the law in so-called trialogue negotiations with representatives of the national governments and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body. On one hand, the Parliament wants to have “net neutrality” enshrined in the bill, meaning that Internet “traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application,” according to the latest working paper seen by The Wall Street Journal. Members of the European Parliament also want to end end roaming costs for phone services, including mobile data, by Dec. 15 and harmonize the way radio spectrum licenses are granted for wireless internet connections. The commission’s initial proposal, put forward two years ago, envisaged all that. Roaming costs should have ended a year ago. But EU governments stalled the bill. About a third of the bill, referring to spectrum, was scrapped, as governments insist that radio frequencies are national property. Failure to agree on this piece of legislation will have an impact on further proposals currently being worked on by the commission as part of the “digital single market” Europe seeks to achieve. Observers point out that if governments and EU lawmakers cannot agree on this bill, rather narrow in scope, the chances are even slimmer when it comes to copyright rules or cross-border access to digital content. Some diplomats and MEPs point the finger at influential telecoms lobbying their governments to water down the bill. “It’s the power of telecoms, particularly on countries with state-owned telecoms,” says Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake. The Netherlands was the first country in Europe to adopt a net-neutrality law, after a court ruled against Internet service providers that were selectively blocking and throttling Skype and other voice-over-Internet providers. “Our experience proved all the myths wrong that if you have a net neutrality law, you cannot cater for specialized services,” Ms. Schaake said. In the European Parliament’s view, “specialized services” — such as hospital-to-hospital communications, video-conferencing or television broadcasting via the Internet – would not be subject to net neutrality rules. But defining what falls under these “specialized services” is tricky. “There are services that require higher speeds, but the question is to agree on them,” said one of the diplomats involved in the talks. Others are worried that a multispeed internet will be a disadvantage for start-up enterprises. “We need an open Internet to be able to challenge incumbents. The ability of start-ups to challenge big tech giants will be under threat if we allow for the creation of Internet fast lanes open only to those who can afford to buy access to them,” says Portugal’s EU affairs secretary, Bruno Macaes. “I am not sure people understand how fundamental net neutrality is to a free, open society. All types of information need to be equally accessible. Imagine if some books were printed in normal font while others had to be read at great cost with a magnifying glass. If we have better quality for certain content on the Internet, that is more or less what we will have,” he added. National governments have aimed to ensure that Internet providers have clear rules on when they are allowed to slow down or block some services. “Blocking, slowing down, altering, degrading or discriminating against specific content, applications or services should be prohibited, subject to justified and defined exceptions laid down in this regulation,” the member states’ text reads. According to the diplomat involved in the talks “It’s just like with highways, you need traffic lights for the traffic to run smoothly.” Vicky Ford, a British Conservative MEP who takes part in the trialogue sessions, says it was hard to get “even this language” from governments. On roaming, even though there is a “clear and strong demand from MEPs to end roaming costs immediately,” Ms. Ford said it is likely for transition periods to be put in place. “It is important for consumers not to get ripped off when they travel abroad. I want to make sure that during that phase-out period there will transparency on tariffs, estimates on what speeds you are going to get and the possibility to terminate the contract if you’re not getting what you were promised,” she said. Under a compromise proposal from the Latvian government – which is chairing the rotating EU presidency until 30 June – telecoms would have to ensure “base packages” for travelers. “The basic roaming allowance shall be available at minimum for 7 days per calendar year and shall allow a minimum daily consumption of 5 minutes of regulated roaming voice calls made, 5 minutes of regulated roaming voice calls received, 5 regulated roaming SMS messages sent and 10 megabytes of regulated data roaming services,” the compromise text reads. A second round of trialogue negotiations is scheduled for April 21.