A few days ago, European regulators issued a set of historic rules which frame the future of internet access in Europe. These rules clarify how Europe’s recent net neutrality law, a sometimes unclear text which was issued at the end of 2015, is to be interpreted and enforced. The rules establish what internet providers can or cannot do when they sell internet access to consumers.
Why is this news such an important milestone?
Despite many years of lobbying campaigns from different industrial sectors, European regulators have decided to protect the internet. They have come to the conclusion that an internet that is open and free from discrimination is more important for Europe’s future than narrow-sighted commercial interests from different sectors. And they are entirely right.
European regulators made the conscious choice to protect the internet as a platform bursting with culture, information, creative content and innovative services; a platform where consumers and citizens can communicate, express themselves and access newer and better services. European regulators have, for once, listened to the advice of civil society organisations and set a standard that will hopefully inspire other regions of the world over the years to come.
Are the EU’s net neutrality rules good on all fronts?
No, the rules are not perfect, but they strike the right balance on the most contentious points. The rules successfully protect the internet as an invaluable social and economic asset while allowing the telecom industry to be innovative in the future. Let’s see a few examples:
1 – A service that gives access to the internet is a service that must give you access to the full internet. Therefore, ’sub-internet’ services where a company would give you access to an arbitrarily-selected part of the internet (e.g.: email, social networks and news websites only) are now forbidden by the new rules.
2 – When an internet provider limits the speed of your connection or the amount of data you can use per month, it has to do so in an ’agnostic’ manner. This means that the internet provider cannot discriminate between different online services and serve some of them faster or with a better quality than others. In essence, all traffic must be treated equally (with some exceptions though).
3 –‘Zero-rating’ of specific apps or services –the practice where your internet provider blocks or slows down all of your internet traffic when you reach your monthly data limit, except one or several apps – is forbidden. This is important to make sure it is you and no-one else who decides what to do with the time you spend online. It also means that the great innovative apps will compete on an equal footing with the current incumbents for consumers’ attention. Other less problematic types of zero-rating are not forbidden, but they will be analysed carefully as they emerge.
The rules are not perfect, but they strike the right balance on the most contentious points.
4 – Other types of digital services such as digital TV, are also delivered over the same broadband connection as internet access. The new rules establish that these other services can continue to flourish and that is great news for consumers. But there’s one condition: they need to be respectful of the quality of internet access, so that one does not hamper the other. For example, this means that when consumers switch on their digital TV, their internet traffic cannot be arbitrarily manipulated as a result.
What happens next?
The net neutrality law is applicable since 30 April 2016, and the new interpretative rules came into effect last week. This means that providers of internet and other broadband services have to abide by these rules, and national regulatory authorities must monitor their markets to ensure compliance. If you believe that net neutrality is not being respected with your internet connection, go defend your rights! You can contact your National Regulatory Authority, the consumer protection organisation in your country, or use civil society platforms such as Respect My Net.