On the EU’s net neutrality law

Understatement of the day, month, year, decade: net neutrality is a controversial issue.

As U.K. tech minister, I was involved in the issue for the six years I held the post. Just recently the European Union adopted its first net neutrality law.

It’s widely seen as doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to — effectively ending net neutrality as true believers see it. I don’t agree, but nor do I necessarily think it was a sensible move. A bit of a contradictory position, but I will try to explain what I mean.

First things first — there’s no clear definition of net neutrality, and it’s definitely seen differently between Europe and the U.S.

The U.S. effectively has a telecoms duopoly, so without strong regulation, there’s a fear the two big telcos could sow things up. That’s why net neutrality features in U.S. presidential elections, but doesn’t register big over here.

Europe has much more competition between telcos, so if one company tries to manage traffic unfairly, it’s likely to lose out with consumers (at least the savvy ones).

In the U.K., we introduced a code of conduct for net neutrality, which all the ISPs signed up to.  That was a good solution. It was light touch and flexible.

The regulator had powers it could use to intervene, and we stood ready to give it more if it needed them. The code struck a balance between the need  for legitimate traffic management and the necessity to stop anti-competitive practices.

So why do we now have a law? For some years now, there’s been a lot of agitation for a European net neutrality law. The Dutch passed their own. The Baltic states, given their cyber focus, wanted their own. The European Parliament made it a major issue.

The momentum was pretty unstoppable — and the law was linked to another telco issue which we badly wanted: mobile roaming.

Tech regulation on the whole is a bad thing.

There are a lot of public policy issues in tech, but many can be solved by co-operation between industry and governments. Agreements maintain flexibility, and allow us to bring in changes when they’re needed, or act quickly on unintended consequences.

So I would have preferred to avoid a law. But I don’t think this law will be as bad as anyone says, and it in effect follows the principles we set out in the U.K. code of conduct. It does enshrine the principle of net neutrality. It carves out exceptions — but that is what they are: Departures from the norm that need to be justified by telcos, and which can be acted on by regulators.

Certainly, we need to ensure innovation and the room for startups to grow. But we also need to acknowledge legitimate traffic management, and the need for infrastructure investment.