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Net Neutrality in Europe: where does it stand?


Net Neutrality is not dead. Not yet, at least. Even though the United States rolled back its firm neutrality rules last December, Europe still has theirs on place. The European Commission has repeatedly expressed its commitment to net neutrality, and a review of the regulation is scheduled for 2019 to evaluate the changes it has brought.

There are problems with Europe’s net neutrality, however. These problems have existed since the beginning but are now just starting to be discussed. For now, companies are not allowed to mess with Europeans’ internet connection, but stronger laws might be required to keep them fully in check.

First, let’s get a bit of context.

Net Neutrality today

This is a subject that has slowly gained terrain on the public’s collective conscience. Net Neutrality is a broad concept that encompasses a lot of things. It has already been explained and covered extensively by the media, but if by any chance you’ve been out of the loop, this is the quick version.

Net Neutrality is a principle that establishes that all data from the internet must be equally available to all users, whether that means speed standards or just straight-forward access. That means that you shouldn’t be locked out of using a website or an app, for example. Among other considerations, it also means you should have the same speeds whether you’re using Netflix, YouTube or Wikipedia.

In short, there can’t be any discrimination, the internet must be neutral.

But wait, isn’t the internet already like that? To a certain point, yes. But as technology has advanced, internet providers have realized they can tamper with the service they’re offering us. And they have, several times. In the US, AT&T was caught limiting access to FaceTime to just its top paying customers. Numerous other cases exist.

An image activists like to use as an example of the control internet providers can enforce.

Net Neutrality protects us from such practices. And it’s necessary. After all, it makes sense financially for these companies to break it. Without it, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a dystopian future where our internet access is offered in packages, pretty much like cable, where certain channels are grouped together in different payment tiers.

In the United States, Net Neutrality has been nothing short of a battlefield. After much protest from local internet providers and mobile carriers, the FCC (Federal Communications Comission) passed strong rules in favor of neutrality on February 2015. However, the success was short lived. After the new government took office in 2017, the new FCC under Ajit Pai rolled back the regulations in December of that same year, essentially ending Net Neutrality in the US.

By contrast, Europe hasn’t had such a dramatic timeline. The European Comisison passed Net Neutrality rules in 2015, and member nations have adhered to them… mostly.

Problems in Europe

Considering what happened in the US, Europe is not doing so bad, but critics have pointed that the existing regulations aren’t enough. In short, companies are exploiting loopholes and what many consider lax laws so they can offer “incentives” for consumers.

A popular practice (with cases in Portugal and Italy) is “zero rating”, where mobile carriers stop charging data consumption on popular apps. The idea is that if you use Instagram a lot, and X carrier offers zero rating for that app, you’ll feel inclined to go with them.

Example: internet provider offers several payment options for mobile plans according to the apps that benefit from zero rating.

While that might seem beneficial for consumers at first, it’s a clear violation of Net Neutrality, because the carrier is favoring certain services above others. They’re essentially acting as gatekeepers and eliminating fair competition. In fact, data caps, which are common among mobile operators, are often thought of as violations to neutrality too.

Another weak link in Europe has also been identified by French communications regulator Arcep. The organization explains that while neutrality rules have generally been followed, the laws are not imposed on hardware itself, so manufacturers are using devices like smartphones, tablets and smart speakers to direct users to “approved content.”

“The freedom of choice of the user is gradually reduced by limitations imposed,” explains Arcep. “Some of these limitations may be justified for reasons of ergonomics, safety or innovation. Others artificially restrict access to the internet and its proliferation.”

Some clears examples of this are pre-installed apps that in turn can’t be uninstalled, or smart speakers recommending services from partners.

These kinds of limitations have existed basically since the use of modern software. It’s muddier ground than the typical rules discussed by authorities and activists, which tend to be exclusively  about internet providers and not manufacturers (and are complex enough already). But it’s more than a valid point, one worth exploring and discussing as a clear weak link.

As the US has left Net Neutrality behind for the time being, it’s up to Europe now to lay the path for an open internet. There’s no doubt that there’s still work to do, and the next couple of years will prove critical for the continent.