Digital rights activist: EU's proposed net neutrality law 'as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane'

The European Union’s proposed net neutrality law allows different price plans for different Internet speeds to the detriment of net neutrality, digital activists said Wednesday.

Without the proposed law, 96 percent of Europeans would be without any legal framework at all for net neutrality, said Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who drew up the draft law presented Wednesday. Only the Netherlands and Slovenia have net neutrality laws.

The text explicitly bans ISPs from blocking and throttling content and gives consumers the freedom to terminate contracts with ISPs that don’t deliver the speeds subscribers pay for, Kroes said. Article 23 of the proposed law bans ISPs from “blocking, slowing down, degrading or discriminating against specific content, applications or services.” Except in cases where it is necessary to apply reasonable traffic management measures in order to “implement a court order, prevent serious crimes, preserve the integrity and security of the network or minimize the effects of temporary or exceptional network congestion.”

However, net neutrality advocates said that Article 23 leaves the door open for a two-tiered Internet by allowing ISPs to offer speeds at different rates through “specialized services with a defined quality of service or dedicated capacity.”

The proposal stipulates that such services “shall not impair in a recurring or continuous manner the general quality of Internet access services,” which Kroes said will guarantee an open Internet for everyone.

But not everyone is convinced.

“We are concerned that market interest in ‘specialized services’ could lead to uneven allocation of resources and degrade services offered over the Internet. Iron-clad guarantees are needed to ensure continued investment in the non-discriminatory part of the network,” said Mael Brunet, head of OpenForum Europe in Brussels.

“The text on net neutrality achieves exactly the opposite of net neutrality—giving the opportunity to fragment Internet connections between a fast lane and a slow lane. As Commissioner Kroes correctly said in 2010 ... commercially motivated discrimination is ‘an absolute no go.’ She has now proposed legislation to facilitate commercially motivated discrimination,” said European digital rights group EDRi spokesman Joe McNamee.

“Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the functioning of how regulation is imposed on a national level in the E.U. will know that the provisions that have been proposed will be about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane,” said McNamee.

The proposed law also gives national regulatory authorities the power “to impose minimum quality of service requirements” on ISPs.

Digital rights activists say the text would also allow content providers, such as Google or Facebook, to pay ISPs to guarantee high speeds for their services.

However, Digital Agenda Spokesman Ryan Heath said that such deals are already available and that, in fact, the proposed law offers consumers more options and protects the open Internet.

“Companies should be allowed to differentiate their offers and compete on enhanced quality of service, provided this is done in an non-discriminatory manner. There is nothing unusual in this—postal services (express delivery) and airlines (economy versus business class) have done this for decades,” he said in a statement. “The difference under this proposed regulation is consumers would have the guaranteed right to walk away if their net neutrality is breached.”

The debate seems to stem from different definitions of net neutrality. The proposed law uses the term only once, referring instead to “open Internet.” The text will now go to the European Parliament, which will almost certainly make changes based on politicians’ understanding of the term.

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