Europe Agrees EU-Wide Net Neutrality Rules And End To Mobile Roaming Fees

European politicians have agreed to end mobile roaming charges in the region by mid 2017, with significant cuts to fees by next summer. MEPs also voted to bring in EU-wide net neutrality rules — which will come into force from April 30, 2016.

The latter issue has stirred up much controversy in the region, with critics attacking what they perceive to be big loopholes in the rules — and dubbing the legislation a threat to the open Internet.

The vote took place in the European Parliament this afternoon, and was passed without amendments.

The preliminary deal on the two issues was agreed in June, following multi-year negotiations between the European Commission, Council and Parliament.

Both issues form part of Europe’s Telecoms Single Market initiative which was set out back in 2013, with the aim of boosting the region’s global competitiveness and fostering digital jobs by reducing market fragmentation.

Speaking ahead of the vote in the European Parliament today, European Commission VP Andrus Ansip, who heads up the Digital Single Market strategy, described the agreement as “a good deal, for Europe and Europeans”.

“I’m also really happy that we able to find consensus in common principles of net neutrality. No blocking, no throttling, no pre-paid prioritisation,” he added.

In a statement following the vote, Ansip added: “Today’s achievement is a first step towards a Telecoms Single Market. More work will need to be done to overcome national silos and address challenges such as spectrum coordination. We will go further as early as next year with an ambitious overhaul of EU telecoms rules. We count on the support of the European Parliament and Member States to make this happen”. 

However there has been controversy over the net neutrality component of the deal — with critics claiming the proposed rules would undermine the principle that all network traffic should be treated equally because they sanction ‘fast lanes’ for so-called “specialized services with quality requirements”; allow network owners to offer zero rated services; and offer net neutrality exceptions, such as for congestion management.

Critics have also noted the agreement is particularly similar to proposals made by network operators back in 2012 — with the implicit suggestion being carriers demanded concessions on net neutrality as a trade-off for loss of revenue from mobile roaming.

Proposed amendments to the net neutrality rules aiming to address perceived weaknesses in the rules — such as the sanctioning of two tiers of services — were supported by some 200 MEPs but not enough for them to survive the vote.

Commenting on the vote on her website, MEP Marietje Schaake — one of the politicians calling for more clearly defined rules on net neutrality — criticized the “vague texts” passed by today’s vote, adding: “In the discussions, too much attention was given to the interests of national telecom companies and too little to those of internet users and the economy of the future.”

Responding to criticism of the net neutrality rules in a blog post, Günther Oettinger, the Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, argued that “even stricter rules” would risk creating a situation of “overregulation” — and throttling certain types of digital development.

“I have sympathy for those that in their eyes want to guarantee more freedom by proposing even stricter rules but overregulation especially in a sector like the internet that moves at speed of light is equally limiting freedom,” he wrote. “Without innovation and investments we will not achieve the goal of every EU citizen connected to high speed internet no matter where they are.

“We need to take care of the developments in the medical sector, financial industry and transport industry that will guarantee safer and better products through the internet. I firmly believe we have achieved in Europe an innovative and balanced approach, strict rules to guarantee the open internet with the possibility for new service to develop; it is a good starting point for our digital journey.”

Speaking during a press conference following the vote, Oettinger added that these specialized services must also be “in the public interest”.

“In terms of limits and restrictions there are specific services whereby preferential treatment can be guaranteed in the Internet. These are for emergency services, for health services — that could include — and mobility services, or transport services. These have to be in the public interest, so that means in the interest of the citizens of Europe,” he said.

“With this decision Europe is the first continent in the world whereby a parliamentary legislative act has been laid down for Internet access. The U.S. has regulation — but it’s only administrative in nature. Our regulation is binding. It’s democratic.”

National regulators in European Member States will be responsible for ensuring Europe’s incoming net neutrality rules are adhered to. However that opens the door to Member States adopting different interpretations — and implies variability in outcome in what is, on the surface, being billed as a clear EU-wide position on net neutrality.

So if the rules are supposed to bring certainty, they may in fact support in the opposite scenario. After all, one regulator’s definition of the “public good” may not be the same as another’s.

In addition, the wording of the net neutrality agreement (below, emphasis mine) indicates that public good is not in fact a requirement for a specialized service, as Oettinger suggested, but is rather only cited as a “for instance” example.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail.

(16) There is demand on the part of providers of content, applications and services to be able to provide electronic communication services other than internet access services, for which specific levels of quality, that are not assured by internet access services, are necessary. Such specific levels of quality are, for instance, required by some services responding to a public interest or by some new machine-to-machine communications services. Providers of electronic communications to the public, including providers of internet access services, and providers of content, applications and services should therefore be free to offer services which are not internet access services and which are optimised for specific content, applications or services, or a combination thereof, where the optimisation is necessary in order to meet the requirements of the content, applications or services for a specific level of quality. National regulatory authorities should verify whether and to what extent such optimisation is objectively necessary to ensure one or more specific and key features of the content, applications or services and to enable a corresponding quality assurance to be given to end-users, rather than simply granting general priority over comparable content, applications or services available via the internet access service and thereby circumventing the provisions regarding traffic management measures applicable to the internet access services.