Europe votes in net neutrality, but doesn’t ban Internet 'fast lanes'

The European Parliament approved regulations on Tuesday that safeguard net neutrality principles and ban cellular roaming charges. Critics of the package say the language is so vague that Internet companies will be able to create a 'fast lane' for companies willing to pay.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
The European Parliament approved a package of net neutrality regulations on Tuesday. Here, Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session in Strasbourg, France on October 27, 2015.

The European Parliament voted on Tuesday to approve "net neutrality" regulations, but rejected amendments that would have clarified the rules, leaving the European Union with a set of regulations that critics say are too vague.

Spanish Parliament member Pilar del Castillo, who originally proposed the text, said the new rules will guarantee an open Internet and that they would prevent Internet providers from offering companies better access to users in exchange for compensation. However, the adopted rules allow providers to prioritize the delivery of certain services, and to exempt content from monthly data caps, which critics say could lead to an Internet “fast lane” and “slow lane.”

One of the rejected amendments would have specified the circumstances under which Internet providers may prioritize specialized services, such as medical operations and self-driving car data, over other Internet traffic. Proponents of the bill argued that it makes sense to give priority to such services, but critics such as World Wide Web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee argued that the rules are written in such a way that companies with deep pockets could pay to have their content classified as a “specialized service,” and therefore delivered faster than competitors’ content.

Another of the rejected amendments would have addressed “zero-rating” products, which are apps and services that don’t count against monthly data limits. An consortium of tech companies including Netflix and Reddit criticized the practice, saying it “creates the same harms to innovation and competition as fast lanes as it is typically provided for payment.”

Critics say zero-rating allows Internet providers to play favorites by striking deals with some companies to exempt their services from data limits, therefore making them more attractive to consumers. Proponents of the regulations, however, say there’s still time for specific rules on zero-rating to take shape.

"[By] September next year we will have the guidelines and the real enforcement work begins," Chris Marsden, a law professor at the University of Sussex, told the BBC.

The approved regulations, together known as the “European Single Market for Electronic Communications,” are similar in many ways to the Open Internet rules implemented in the US earlier this year. Both ban Internet providers from slowing or blocking content, and from accepting payment from companies to prioritize their traffic.

But while the American rules also have exceptions for zero-rating and specialized services, the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to step in if those exceptions are being used to evade the spirit of the Open Internet rules or to create a de facto “fast lane.” The European rules don’t say how regulators should act if the exceptions are used to harm competition.

The EU regulations take a hard stance against cellular roaming charges. Starting in June 2017, cellular companies won’t be able to charge customers extra for using data or making calls outside their home countries but still within the EU. The only exception is a penalty for “permanent roaming,” when a customer uses a SIM card from a country with cheap cell service while living in another country with more expensive service.

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