EU votes in favor of net neutrality, strikes down roaming charges

The European Parliament made a major step toward revitalizing Europe's mobile networks Thursday, voting in favor of a proposed law that would toughen the EU stance on net neutrality and end roaming charges. What is the wider reaction, and what does this mean for the US net neutrality debate?

Bogdan Cristel/FILE/REUTERS
A Vodafone employee shows M-Pesa's text message transactions option for mobile phones on its website in Bucharest April 1, 2014. European telecom companies such as Britain-based Vodafone, would be affected if the European Parliament's net neutrality proposal goes through.

The European Union has made a step toward a key tech law that was struck down by the United States in January.

The European leaders approved a proposal that would further toughen net neutrality rules across the 28-member European Union, as well as strike down roaming charges across member countries and improve 4G and 5G mobile infrastructure. Though the rules still must be approved by the Council of the European Union, if passed this would be the first Europe-wide law combating what lawmakers call “the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access services” by Internet access providers. The abolishment of roaming charges and infrastructure updates will also be a major step toward making mobile use easier, and cheaper, across most of the continent.

“We have achieved further guarantees to maintain the openness of the Internet by ensuring that users can run and provide applications and services of their choice as well as reinforcing the Internet as a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, jobs, social development and innovation,” says Spanish rapporteur Pilar del Castillo Vera, who led the legislation, in a statement.

The new law would prevent European telecoms companies from promoting certain “special services” at the expense of others. For example, EU telecoms regulator BEREC found that some companies were slowing down or blocking the US-based Internet calling service Skype.

Internet access companies could still promote their own services, but the circumstances in which these companies could deliberately slow another companies’ services would be limited to circumstances such network congestion or security, or a court order. If those are used as justification, lawmakers say the companies must be "transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate" and "not be maintained longer than necessary.”

Currently there are only two EU countries – Slovenia and the Netherlands – that have net neutrality laws already written into national law. Lawmakers underlined the fact that the new law is meant to uphold the principles of net neutrality – that all Internet traffic is treated equally and independently.

EU telecom companies aren’t particularly pleased with this development, and argued that it could result in customer choice restrictions and harm competitive business practices.

“Today’s vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent Regulation, namely a strong European digital industry igniting growth and jobs creation,” says Luigi Gambardella, chairman of the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, in a statement. “We are confident that the upcoming work of the EU decision makers will acknowledge such risk and will embrace the spirit of the Commission’s original proposal, confirming that the EU seeks solutions for growth, and not populist measures."

“For mobile to fulfill this potential, network operators must be able to develop services that meet the needs of consumers and charge different prices for differentiated products,” says Anne Bouverot, director general at GSMA, a mobile operator industry group, in a statement. “This is also a key driver for the high network investment needed to meet Europe’s connectivity challenge and underpin growth.”

However, the fight for European net neutrality isn’t finished yet – the law must be approved by European ministers, which means that the battle now moves to individual countries, where telecom companies are sure to be ready to lobby for their stance.

"This is a huge victory for the millions of people who spoke out against the corporate carve-up of Europe’s Internet to protect net neutrality,” says Luis Morago, campaign director at advocacy group Avaaz, in a statement. “Now the pressure turns to European leaders to listen to the people -- not Vodafone, Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica."

A similar scene played out in the US in January, when a court ruled in favor of Verizon and Comcast over the FCC, striking down the Open Internet rules that kept Internet access providers from charging websites for better Internet quality. In the interim, websites such as Netflix have complained of buffer issues that were solved once it paid Comcast extra fees. The FCC is currently in the process of drafting new net neutrality laws.

Whether this move will pressure US lawmakers to adopt similar laws will hinge on how the law is debated and changed in coming months. Lawmakers expect a final vote by the end of 2014.

Another key part of these laws is the abolishment of roaming charges and encouragement of infrastructure improvements. Though it has become increasingly easier to travel between different European countries through an advanced train system and low cost flights, the vast variety of countries and cultures within a small geographic area has given rise to individual telecom companies for different countries. This has led to an increase in roaming fees when EU citizens travel, even if it is to a country just a hundred miles from home.

Because of this competition, Europe’s connectivity has fallen behind what is found in the US and several Asian countries.

"In 2010 I promised to end roaming charges by the end of 2015, and now we are one step away from achieving that result,” says European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes in a statement. “Beyond the highly visible barrier of roaming we are now close to removing many other barriers so Europeans can enjoy open, seamless communications wherever they are.”

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