European politicians have passed rules that contain provisions for telecoms firms to manage traffic and run two-tier internet services, undermining the bedrock of net neutrality and the open internet.
The proposed legislation had already come under intense attack from numerous organisations and individuals, including web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee who called them “weak and confusing”.
However, MEPs passed the legislation by 500 votes to 163, leading to widespread dismay.
Chief among the concerns is the ability of internet service providers to offer ‘specialised services’, such as telehealth, IPTV or videoconferencing, with guaranteed service levels.
The EC said that this cannot be paid for and must not be done to the detriment of the open internet, and insisted that it does not create a ‘two-tier’ internet, as outlined by Günther Oettinger, commissioner for the digital economy.
"With the new rules, all internet traffic will be treated equally and there will be no paid prioritisation of access service. This ensures that all Europeans have access to online content and service without discrimination," he said in a blog post.
But critics argue that the law creates a two-tier internet by allowing operators to class traffic from certain services as somehow different to other internet traffic.
Julia Reda, MEP for the Pirate Party, was one of those who spoke out against this provision.
“That providers will be allowed to discriminate against certain traffic not only creates a two-tier internet, but removes incentives for carriers to extend their capacities,” she said.
Operators are also given the right to put traffic management processes in place during “congestion that is temporary or exceptional”.
The EC stated that this cannot be used by operators to cover problems with a network where they have underinvested, but critics have questioned the wording of this aspect of the law, describing it as vague and ill-defined.
Another element that has caused consternation is zero-rating, which could allow content providers to pay telecoms firms not to count their traffic towards a subscriber's data plan.
This would effectively help the bigger companies to entice customers by promising that any use of the service will not affect their data use allowance.
Agnès de Cornulier, legal and policy analyst coordinator at French web advocacy group La Quadrature Du Net, was damning in her criticism of the European Parliament for passing such measures.
"Today MEPs had the chance to stand their ground against the Council and the Commission but they only showed a timid face in front of the threats to abandon the text or prolong the negotiations," she said.
“By voting this incomplete and non-protective text, they sell off citizens' rights and liberties and they hamper small and innovative companies in favour of big telecoms companies.”
Anne Jellema, CEO of the Web Foundation, also criticised the Parliament, saying that Europe had taken a "giant step away" from its vision of being a leader in the digital era.
"These weak and unclear net neutrality regulations threaten innovation and free speech," she said.
"Now, European startups may have to compete on an uneven playing field against industry titans, while small civil society groups risk having their voices overwhelmed by well-funded giants."
However, Jellema added that there is still some hope that the legislation could be changed.
“The European Parliament is essentially tossing a hot potato to the Body of European Regulators, national regulators and the courts, who will have to decide how these spectacularly unclear rules will be implemented,” she said.
“The onus is now on these groups to heed the call of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens and prevent a two-speed internet.”
The EU stance on net neutrality is notably different from that in the US where earlier this year the US Federal Communications Commission adopted rules enshrining net neutrality in law.
The new net neutrality laws were also wrapped up within provisions to end roaming charges by 2017, in a move that should be welcomed by consumers and business travellers alike.
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