Oped: New Europe - A digital future needs real net neutrality

Marietje

Commissioner Kroes’ recently published proposals to harmonize the European telecoms markets are an important step towards the long overdue completion of the European Digital Single Market. Everyone that has ever used their cell phone in another member state for calls or mobile internet knows that eliminating roaming costs in the EU would indeed be a major improvement for consumers. However, the proposed clauses that are labelled ‘net neutrality’ in the regulation are cause for concern. They risk compromising the public value of the open internet and stifling innovation. In the coming months the European Parliament has a historic opportunity to correct this and lay the foundations for an open internet by enshrining true net neutrality in law.

Marietje Schaake, New Europe, 10.11.2013 Over the last 20 years the internet and information technology have developed at an extremely rapid pace, giving rise to huge economic and social benefits. The key driver of this unprecedented innovation has been the simple fact that all information flows and services are treated equally, without discrimination; conform the principle of net neutrality. Through its open nature, the internet has become an increasingly important enabler of human rights. Freedom of expression in particular, but press freedom, access to information and freedom of association as well. At the same time the internet boosts economic, social and political developments. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a world in which we are not connected anymore. To ensure access to information, innovation and a level playing-field for the next decades, legal guarantees are needed. Until recently the assumption was that competition and transparency would offer sufficient safeguards for internet users’ connectivity. However, research by the board of European telecom regulators, BEREC, has shown that hundreds of millions of European consumers do not have access to all information or services online. Practices such as throttling or blocking of data or the blocking of specific services such as Skype or Whatsapp are occurring widely. These practices often require intrusive techniques such as deep packet inspection, where internet service providers look at the content that is being transferred in order for them to identify and prioritize or throttle certain data packets. Would we accept it if the mailman opened our letters in order to decide which he would deliver first? Although the good news is that Commissioner Kroes’ proposal puts an end to these practices, the risk of deals between major market players continues to threaten net neutrality. So-called Assured Quality Service provisions would allow content providers to make deals with internet service providers to offer faster service. These provisions can limit the possibilities to enter the market for new players whose pockets are not as deep. This would stifle innovation. We already see more and more internet service providers and content providers making these deals. We need to ensure that consumer choice and access to information are not hurt in the long run. It is essential that major market players cannot abuse their power and that the public interest is not forgotten. When hospitals, libraries and universities cannot afford to pay for higher internet speeds they risk being crowded out. To give new services and innovative start-ups a fair chance, incumbents should not be favoured over newcomers in the market. The EU should therefore take the lead on actually enshrining net neutrality in law. This will require an approach that is ambitious, principled, and puts users first. The public value of the open internet is too often overlooked. ISPs have to treat all data equally, cannot block any content, and must allow for fair competition on the internet. This would protect users from the abuse of power of major market players. A digital single market free from unnecessary barriers, with a solid infrastructure and modern regulations has an economic potential of 800 billion euros. Net neutrality is an essential condition in order to unlock this potential to the fullest. The European Parliament now has a historic opportunity to get net neutrality right. Implementing net neutrality legislation in the EU is not only important today, but will be increasingly essential tomorrow. In a legal vacuum, we risk a race to the bottom.