• (Photo: Ken Hawkins)

MEPs back net neutrality law

03.04.14 @ 18:40

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

BRUSSELS - MEPs have backed open access to the Internet by tightening plans by the European Commission on net neutrality.

  • MEPs have backed plans to prevent internet providers from blocking access to certain websites (Photo: Bombardier)

In a vote on Thursday (3 April), a coalition of centre-left and liberal deputies backed amendments to prevent Internet service providers from manipulating and blocking access to certain websites.

Under the rules, Internet providers would only be able to offer consumers specialised services of higher quality, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive “cloud” (data storage) applications, if they were not supplied to "the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access services" offered to other companies or service suppliers.

Meanwhile, deputies also stripped down the list of "exceptional cases" drawn up by the Commission which would allow internet providers to block or slow down sites so that these practices could only be permitted to enforce a court order, preserve network security or prevent online congestion.

Evidence collected in 2012 by Berec, the pan-European group of national Internet service providers, found that around one in five fixed lines and over one in three mobile users were restricting access to, or blocking, sites like Skype, used by millions to make phone calls using the Internet.

Deputies on the Parliament's Industry committee had previously backed a proposal tabled by the European Commission which would allow internet providers to prioritise access to specialised service, but the assembly's Socialist, liberal and Green groups formed a majority to back amendments overturning the committee position.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (2 April), Dutch liberal MEP Marietje Schaake, who tabled the amendments, said that they were needed to tighten the definitions of net neutrality.

"By ensuring clear rules of the road for the EU digital single market and the open Internet, competition, innovation and Internet users will benefit," she said.

The main text agreed by deputies states that "'Net neutrality' means the principle according to which all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, recipient, type, content, device, service or application."

The Netherlands became the first EU country to enshrine the principle of net neutrality in law in 2012, and has since been joined by Slovenia.

In a letter to MEPs earlier this week, Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes urged deputies to back her proposal.

“Specialised services already exist and are unregulated,” she wrote, adding that “there is a strong case for specialised services – given their importance in driving innovation and investment in the digital economy . . . So we must carefully regulate, but not hinder or effectively ban, these specialised services.”

For his part, Luis Morago, campaign director of Avaaz, which had launched an online petition on the issue signed by 1.1 million Europeans, described the vote as "a huge victory for the millions of people who spoke out against the corporate carve-up of Europe’s internet to protect net neutrality."

However, cable and telecoms firms expressed disappointment at the result, blaming a "set of misconceptions about our industry".

"Whilst we support an open internet, a set of misconceptions about our industry, together with a rushed legislative process and a lack of technical analysis, risk transforming the Connected Continent Regulation into an anti-innovation and anti-consumer choice legislation," said Cable Europe, a lobby group representing cable and telecom operators.

Deputies also backed Commission plans to ban mobile “roaming” charges anywhere in the EU from December 2015.

Negotiations with ministers in a bid to secure their agreement on the reforms will only start after May's European elections.

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