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EC passes net neutrality rules

The European Commission has given its final approval to net neutrality rules that it claims will “guarantee an open internet” and ban paid-prioritisation of web traffic.

Announcing the legislation, the EC said that all internet traffic will be treated equally and that there will be “no paid prioritisation of access service” or internet ‘fast lanes’.

However, members of the European Parliament did not vote in favour of amendments to the rules, which critics claim would have actually helped net neutrality efforts in Europe.

Commenting on yesterday’s vote, Julia Reda, member of the European Parliament for the pro-open internet Pirate Party said that the rules constituted a “broken promise” in establishing net neutrality, and that “critical loopholes” remained open.

“The internet’s open structure is what made it the successful driver of growth and innovation in the digital economy and digital culture that it is today. That providers will be allowed to discriminate against certain traffic not only creates a two-tier internet, it also removes incentives for carriers to extend their capacities,” said Reda.

The rules that were adopted by the European Parliament yesterday were first agreed on June 30 and were adopted by the Council on October 1. They say that all internet traffic will be treated equally, “subject to strict and clearly identified public-interest exceptions such as network security”.

However, crucially, it also permits ISPs to offer “specialised services of higher quality such as internet TV” – leading to claims of a ‘two-tier’ internet.

Commenting ahead of the approval of the rules yesterday, Stanford Law School professor Barbara van Schewick said that without amendments Europe’s net neutrality rules fail to deliver network neutrality to the EU, are “much weaker than current net neutrality rules in the United States” and threaten Europe’s open internet.

Luca Schiavoni, senior analyst at Ovum, described the rules as “pointless”, claiming that while the European Commission has enshrined principles of not blocking or throttling web traffic, it will depend on each national regulator to enforce this.

“They’ve enshrined these principals on paper, but in Europe we never really felt the need for net neutrality rules [compared to the States] because the markets are more competitive than in the US,” said Schiavoni.

Announcing the adoption of the net neutrality rules yesterday, Günther H. Oettinger, European Commissioner in charge of Digital Economy and Society, said: “As ever in democracy there are critical voices, 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 said the legislation as it stands “ensures that all Europeans have access to online content and service without discrimination,” and would stop mobile operators from blocking and throttling of services like video calls apps.

The EC said that there will not be “different classes of internet traffic” under the rules and that providers of internet access will be forced to treat all traffic in the same way.

ISPs will only be allowed to block, throttle or take discriminatory action against congestion if it is “exceptional” or “temporary” and national regulators will monitor the application of those rules.

At the same time, the EC said it would move to gradually abolish mobile roaming fees in Europe.

From April 2016, a new system called ‘roam like at home’ will be introduced, which will include small extra fees for roaming. These extra-charges for roaming will be abolished altogether by June 15, 2017.

“Digital challenges need strong action at European level, and we should continue in this direction to create a ‘Digital Single Market’,” said Oettinger.