E.U. Law Will Foil Net Neutrality, Critics Say
Legislation passed today by the European Parliament appears to be a victory for Net neutrality. But advocates for a free and open Internet claim the new rules are not what the parliament claims they are and, in fact, could lead to a two-tier Internet.
The legislation was intended to ensure a level playing field that would, in the parliament’s words, "protect the right of every European to access Internet content, without discrimination" -- effectively keeping Internet providers from blocking or throttling content, services or apps.
The bill, though, was passed without any of the amendments that consumer advocates and tech firms had been encouraging during the past week. These critics maintain that the legislation would still let Internet service providers (ISPs) violate Net neutrality by referring to favored commercial partners as "specialized services" -- designating them as their own category of traffic, and thus entitling them to special treatment.
Those opposed to the legislation also contend that it does little to prevent companies from exempting those services from data caps that are usually imposed on customers. Data caps are often described as a way to help consumers save money on their monthly bills, but they also could discourage new companies from entering the market.
"The specialized services exception allows ISPs to use IP networks for delivery of other online services, distinct from general Internet access that they offer, without complying with non-discrimination rules," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation about the specialized services exemption.
Those pushing for the amendments that were left out of the legislation include many of the same bodies that lobbied the Federal Communications Commission for stronger Net neutrality rules in the United States.
The legislation also includes provisions that put such specialized services as video streaming, high-definition video conferencing, and some health care services in their own categories. These are ostensibly meant to support bandwidth-intensive services, such as remote telesurgery, but the legislation’s language is vague enough to keep the door open for so-called fast lanes that allow some customers to pay extra for faster Internet service, according to critics.
Not everyone is up in arms over the legislation, however. We reached out to Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C., who told us that some of the Net neutrality advocates might be overreacting.
"Allowing for flexibility around specialized services is totally legitimate," said Brake. "This is not a loophole, but much needed room for growth of new applications that push the possibilities of current networks. The rules will prohibit the types of conduct people fear while allowing needed flexibility in the network."
Image credit: iStock/Artist's concept.