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Protecting net neutrality - an update on the recent proposals of the European Parliament
On Thursday 3 April 2014 a clear majority of the European Parliament voted in favour of measures aimed at guaranteeing the openness of the Internet. This latest ’net neutrality’ proposal, should it become law, will see Internet Service Providers (ISPs) barred from blocking or slowing down selected services for economic or other reasons. MEPs also voted to ban roaming charges for using a mobile phone in another EU country. These moves to further open up the telecommunications market, and strengthen the EU single market principle, will put the EU at odds with the US, where a US Federal Appeals Court recently struck down rules adopted by the US Federal Communication Commission to preserve a neutral and non-discriminatory Internet.
What is net neutrality?
Network neutrality, or ‘net neutrality’, is the principle that access to internet content and applications should be “neutral”, that is “that traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application”. The principle is rooted in the idea that information networks, such as the internet, are most efficient and useful to the public when less focused on a particular audience and instead accommodating to multiple users.
The European Commission estimates that about 100 million people have suffered restrictions on internet usage, such as the blocking of free chat apps like Skype or WhatsApp by companies that offer rival services.
The European Proposals
The net neutrality proposal will ensure the internet remains a free and open platform for exploitation and distribution of content and facilitation of services, and will restrict ISPs in their dealings and offerings. The vote has been welcomed by EU member states, including the UK where most large ISPs already operate under a voluntary code of practice in support of the open internet, which is based on three guiding principles:
- users should be able to access all legal content;
- there should be no discrimination against content providers on the basis of commercial rivalry; and
- traffic management policies should be clear and transparent.
The concept of net neutrality was previously introduced at EU level as part of the so-called “Telecoms Package”. This included provisions relating to transparency of the scope of services being subscribed for, and required ISPs to inform subscribers of any change to conditions limiting access to and/or use of services and applications and provide information of any procedures in place to measure and shape traffic.
The latest vote goes further to support freedom and fairness on the internet to ensure all users have equal have access to full internet products. For consumers, this means no network provider restrictions on what they can and cannot access, no charges specifically related to faster internet access, and increased consumer choice, quality of services and diversity of content. For smaller or start-up organisations, the net neutrality proposal will allow them the chance reach as great an online audience as a large, established company.
What Happens Next
As expected, the proposal is receiving pushback from ISPs and other telecommunications providers with arguments similar to those promulgated in 2009 in response to the Telecoms Package, namely that removing the ability to charge will hurt profits and prevent them from offering enhanced services to customers, with the end user inevitability being the one to suffer the results. However, the proposed law does allow for ISPs to conclude specialised services agreements for enhanced or defined levels of quality of service, provided such agreements do not cause detriment or impair the general quality of internet access services offered to other companies or service suppliers. Further, network providers will also be able to take a limited number of traffic management measures to address network congestion, provided such measures are “technically necessary, transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory”, and occur only temporarily or in exceptional circumstances.
Following the vote, Neelie Kroes, the EU telecom commissioner, stated “This vote is the EU delivering for citizens. This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive”. If approved by the Council of the European Union, the proposal will be passed into law in October of this year.
For further information, please contact Emily Featherstone - Commercial Technology associate
 European Parliament Report on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down measures concerning the European single market for electronic communications and to achieve a Connected Continent, and amending Directives 2002/20/EC, 2002/21/EC, 2002/22/EC, and Regulations (EC) No 1211/2009 and (EU) No 531/2012
(COM(2013)0627 – C7-0267/2013 – 2013/0309(COD)), Amendment 41, Proposal for Regulation, Recital 45
 Directive 2009/136/EC Universal services directive, see Article 20, point 1(b).
 Ibid 1. Amendment 46, Proposal for Regulation, Recital 49; and Amendment 47, Proposal for Regulation, Recital 50
 Ibid 1. Amendment 43, Proposal for Regulation, Recital 47