Net neutrality: Defending an open and free internet

11 April 2018 – Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (Trento)

Recent legislation in the United States has restricted the country’s so-called “net neutrality”, allowing internet service providers to privilege customers who can afford to pay for faster data traffic. Will this decision affect net neutrality in the EU and the Balkans?

Imagine that your internet service was like a subscription for cable television: payment would be required in order to access certain websites or services. For example, imagine that your internet provider served Netflix at a slower speed than other services – you would then have to face the questionable pleasure of paying your internet service provider for a service you had already paid for when you subscribed to Netflix.

The rules regarding net neutrality, in force until now, banned the blocking of any legal content (blocking specific social networks or applications, for example). Furthermore, providers were not permitted to slow data traffic for specific content, or create a so-called “fast track” for higher-paying customers.

After the recent decision of the United States’ Federal Communications Commission affecting net neutrality, all these rules are in danger of being repealed.

A consequence of the decision is that Internet providers no longer have to offer the same access to content and services to all customers. These customers may therefore have to pay more to access specific services. Millions of internet users may find themselves unable to continue using their usual services, and start-ups could end up facing major difficulties.

Considering the consequences this decision could have for internet users in the USA – from the slowing of traffic to extra payments for the use of particular platforms – organisations concerned with internet rights and freedoms fear that similar decisions could be adopted by governments in other countries.

The EU market, which includes more than 500 million potential consumers, is protected by the principle of net neutrality. Approved in 2016, it is compulsory for all national telecommunications providers.

A year before these rules came into force, more than 50,000 people across Europe supported an initiative for the defence of net neutrality. One of those people is Wienke Giezeman, co-founder and CEO of The Things Industries. In the summer of 2015 he participated in an awareness campaign entitled “Save the internet, protect net neutrality in Europe”.

While European institutions were drawing up the rules on net neutrality, activists, journalists, media associations and many others joined forces to work on obtaining adequate legislation.

After the draft regulation was published in 2015, BEREC hosted a public consultation. Activists involved in the aforementioned campaign submitted 510,385 responses to the draft. Their comments, plus numerous negotiations concerning the legal aspects of the legislation, lead to the creation of European rules on the defence of net neutrality.

European internet users are safe

After the 2015 vote in the European Parliament, the principle of net neutrality officially came into force for EU member states on April 30th, 2016. Net neutrality doesn’t just ensure the success of the digital single market, it also means that all inhabitants of the 28 member states have the same access to internet services.

Wienke Giezeman stresses that there are no imminent changes facing net neutrality in the European Union, and, in his opinion, the USA’s decision will not have any repercussions on EU policy. “I believe that this will make the case for net neutrality in the EU even stronger, because in the coming years the precise consequences of the American decision will become clear”.

Nevertheless, worrying precedents have been set within the EU by cases where these rules have been violated, in countries such as Sweden and Germany. For example, as the New York Times has recently described, one of the largest mobile operators in Sweden offered as part of its package unlimited access to applications such as Facebook, Instagram and Spotify. Zero-rating, meaning free access – no mobile data cost – to certain social networks, violates net neutrality because it privileges the use of specific services and leads to internet access which is geared to the interests of larger platforms. Furthermore, far from being an act of generosity on the operator’s part, customers end up paying with personal data rather than money.

Wienke explains that the responsibility of applying the rules lies with national institutions. The majority of the rules, like those on throttling and slowing, are extremely clear and don’t allow room for manoeuvre. The rule regarding zero-rating is an exception, and remains a point of contention. Wienke still feels that the decision two years ago on net neutrality can be considered a victory. “There have been a couple of complaints, mostly relating to zero-rating. I believe that there will always be reasons to keep fighting, but compared with the situation in the USA, I can say that I’m very satisfied with our rules.”

In European countries where the EU regulations don’t yet apply, the rules regarding neutrality are derived from those which regulate electronic communications. “In the Republic of Serbia’s Law on electronic communications, among the aims and principles regulating electronic communications, it is included that end-users, while using public communication networks and services, should be able to freely participate and distribute information, using the applications and services they wish. It is not explicitly called net neutrality, but it is clear that its meaning is inscribed in these principles of the law”, says Bojan Perkov, policy researcher with SHARE.

As for the reaction in the Balkans to the US decision, Perkov feels that for the moment it won’t affect internet users in the region: “But if this policy is applied in the state where the internet was born, it could drive many governments across the world to introduce similar practices.”

An important question relating to net neutrality is the fate of the technology sector. A change in the rules would not just affect our experience as internet users – it could also inhibit the development of start-up companies.

Perkov, whose foundation has recently launched an online series called “On the net”, with the aim of turning public attention to this and other issues concerning digital rights, explains it this way: “When they begin, new businesses on the ICT market, so-called start-ups, do not have the funds to pay internet providers for a ‘fast-track’ service – namely, prioritised traffic for their application or online platform. With the repeal of net neutrality, competition suffers, because small companies cannot compete with larger competitors who already have huge amounts of users and the means to pay for faster traffic”.

In the summer of 2014, the fifth episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver went viral. The British comedian wasn’t talking about some hot topic, celebrity, or world affairs. The theme of the episode was net neutrality: Oliver asked American internet users to become defenders of their right to equal access to internet services, and succeeded in making net neutrality an issue for the average American internet user. Nevertheless, three years later, the fear raised in the episode has become a reality.  

Rather suddenly, American internet users have to face major changes in how they use the internet, and, explains Perkov, could end up paying a high price. Elsewhere, European experts believe that Europe will maintain a stable position on the protection of net neutrality. While it isn’t yet clear if the United States’ decision will drive governments in other countries to revise their rules on net neutrality, the media predicts that the debate on net neutrality will continue to be lively this year.

Translated from the Italian by Ciaran Lawless

This article is published in association with the European Parliament.

This article has been produced within the project The Parliament of Rights, co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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