Net Neutrality: Europe finally takes a stand (of sorts)

Posted on: July 2nd, 2015

Arguments over net neutrality have been fierce in recent years. The principle – that all internet traffic should be treated equally regardless of its content and its provenance (particularly in terms of speed and cost of transmission) – is believed by many users to be essential to ensuring the on-going economic, educational and political revolution brought about by world-wide access to the internet. On the other hand, many Internet Service Providers have argued for the right to charge customers differential prices or allocate greater bandwidth for premium services.

The US took the first firm position earlier this year when the Federal Communications Commission, having ruled that broadband access should be regulated as a telecommunications service, published its final net neutrality rules in April.

The EU is now set to catch up, in part at least, with the agreement this week between the Commission, Council of Ministers and European Parliament on rules to enshrine net neutrality in European law. However, unlike the US rules, the EU deal allows an exemption for “specialised services of higher quality”. There is much detail yet to come on what counts as a specialised service.

Internet users may accept preferential bandwidth being allocated to surgery being carried out remotely via robotic aids, for example, but may feel it tests the meaning of neutrality for premium internet TV broadcasts to be given special treatment.

As always in EU law, there is a public interest exemption allowing Member States to control bandwidth allocation where safety or crime prevention justifies doing so, such as controlling the dissemination of terrorist and child abuse content. Whether that exemption itself will be abused by the authorities remains to be seen.

One good effect of the new deal is the abolition of data roaming charges across the EU by June 2017. Users will see a significant fall in the cost of using their mobile devices when travelling around Europe and, even in the transition period beforehand, meaningful caps will be applied to data roaming charges.

In short, it’s a mixed bag. Consumers will see cheaper holiday phone bills but may pay more for the next series of Game of Thrones. Business, meanwhile, will be keeping a close eye on how the Commission develops its ideas about “specialised services” and how that may affect the cost of the huge quantities of data companies exchange with each other across Europe every day.