Tuesday

23rd May 2017

Focus

One year later: EU right to open internet still virtual

Several mobile network providers across Europe have started to offer their users subscription plans that would allow them to continue using a specific application, even if they have used up their monthly data limit.

Virgin Mobile in the United Kingdom, for example, allows users of a certain plan to send messages on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, even if they have already used up all their data allowance.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Swedish Telia allows some users to use Spotify's music streaming app regardless of how much data they have left.

Sounds nice, doesn't it?

There is only one problem: It might very well be illegal.

Zero-rating

The type of offers that are described above are called zero-rating, because providers offer a service at the rate of €0.

But digital rights activists say this commercial practice goes against the principle of network neutrality, which has been a legal right to EU citizens since one year ago this weekend.

That principle says that a provider of internet access should not discriminate between services offered online, or give one preferential treatment over the other.

Without that principle, it would be difficult for newcomers to challenge existing services.

In the above examples, access is given to WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Spotify in a situation when competing chat apps and streaming services are being blocked.

Case-by-case

The European Union legislation on open internet access does not specify if zero-rating is allowed.

Instead, the EU lawmakers decided to leave it to national authorities to determine it on a case-by-case basis.

“They kicked the can down the road,” said Thomas Lohninger, long-time activist involved in getting net neutrality enshrined in EU law.

That happened in 2015, when an EU regulation that included rules on open internet access was adopted.

Critics at the time were worried that the legal text was riddled with loopholes. The plenary debate in the European Parliament about the regulation was somewhat bizarre.

One part of the MEPs, mostly those in the largest centre-left and centre-right groups, said the new text would guarantee an open and neutral internet.

A smaller part said that they thought the text would make sure that the exact opposite would happen.

The open internet access rules came into force one year ago on Sunday, on 30 April 2016.

But it was not until the end of August 2016, when the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec) issued guidelines interpreting the EU regulation, that net neutrality fans gave a sigh of relief.

The Berec guidelines closed the loopholes, they said. But even then, that was just the theory.

“One could think that we are done,” said Lohninger, who spoke to EUobserver at the recent Rightscon digital rights conference in Brussels.

“We have the [net neutrality] law, we have the guidelines for the regulatory implementation. Everything seems to be settled, right? Not really. The European regulators still have to enforce the law and follow the guidelines they have agreed on," he said.

And that enforcement does not come automatic, he added.

“Many of the regulators have a very personal relationship with industry, because people working for regulators have a professional past in the industry and vice-versa,” he said.

“In particular in countries where the state still holds shares of the incumbent, like in France, Germany, UK, or Spain, the regulators are more hesitant.”

Member state watchdogs do not always agree on what constitutes zero-rating.

The regulation also left it to individual member states to determine how high fines for a violation of net neutrality should be.

Without active national regulators, the right to net neutrality is nothing more than a theoretical concept.

But Lohninger has helped set up a citizens' initiative to flag possible violations on a website, in case national watchdogs do no do their jobs.

The website, Respect My Net, which was launched in March 2016, said there had been 89 confirmed reports of violations. A list on the site showed that more than half of them involved zero-rating.

That could be because those are more easy to spot.

“Sometimes you just have to follow the advertisements”, said Lohninger.

Too soon to tell

After one year of EU citizens having the legal right to open internet access, Greens MEP Michel Reimon said it was too soon to determine the regulation's success.

The Austrian left-wing MEP was one previously one of those most worried about the regulation creating exactly the opposite of net neutrality.

He said Berec's guidelines were an “improvement”, but that it would have been more robust if the legal text itself was more clear.

“I am not convinced it will hold for years,” Reimon told EUobserver.

The European Commission last year proposed to upgrade Berec to an EU agency in which it had more influence.

Although the plan seems doomed to fail because of a lack of support among member states and the EU parliament, it highlighted Reimon's concerns.

“When we change the structure of Berec, they might change the guidelines,” he said.

Last week, the new head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States showed that acquired rights can be removed.

The Trump-appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, said in a speech on 26 April he would reverse net neutrality rules agreed under president Barack Obama, and “return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well”.

EU telecom watchdog plan dead on arrival

The European Commission wants to upgrade the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications into an agency, but both the parliament and member states are against it.

Magazine

Share you in court

Regulatory systems were not ready for the sharing economy, and now the battle has moved from the streets to the halls of justice.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBecome an Explorer - 'Traces of Nordic' Seeking Storytellers Around the World
  2. Malta EU 2017Closer Cooperation and Reinforced Solidarity to Ensure Security of Gas Supply
  3. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceHigh-Intensity Interval Training Is Therapeutic Option for Type 2 Diabetes
  4. Dialogue Platform"The West Must Help Turkey Return to a Democratic Path" a Call by Fethullah Gulen
  5. ILGA-EuropeRainbow Europe 2017 Is Live - Which Countries Are Leading on LGBTI Equality?
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWhen You Invest in a Refugee Woman You Help the Whole Community
  7. Eurogroup for AnimalsECJ Ruling: Member States Given No Say on Wildlife Protection In Trade
  8. European Heart NetworkCall for Urgent Adoption of EU-Wide Nutrient Profiles for Nutrition & Health Claims
  9. Counter BalanceInvestment Plan for Europe More Climate Friendly but European Parliament Shows Little Ambition
  10. Mission of China to the EUPresident Xi: China's Belt and Road Initiative Benefits People Around the World
  11. Malta EU 2017EU Strengthens Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Firearms
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Cost of Speaking Out: Human Rights Violations Committed in Belarus

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCABanishing Bias? Audit, Objectivity and the Value of Professional Scepticism
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Oslo Climate Declaration Focuses on Rising Temperatures in the Arctic
  3. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceAbdominal Obesity: A Causal Risk Factor for Cardiometabolic Diseases
  4. EU Green Week 2017Discuss EU Environmental Policies With Industry Experts and Thought Leaders
  5. GEN Summit 2017Join the World's Leading Media Summit for Thought-Provoking Talks and Experiences
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsTogether for Human Rights: A Year in Review
  7. Malta EU 2017EU All Set for Free Roaming Starting 15 June
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersRefugee Unemployment Biggest Drain on Public Purse, Says New Nordic Studies
  9. Dialogue Platform17,000 Women, 515 Babies in Turkish Prisons, a Report Reveals
  10. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCharlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum Tells Kids to "Eat Well, Drink Well, Move!"
  11. ECR GroupSyed Kamall: We Need a New, More Honest Relationship With Turkey
  12. Counter BalanceParliament Sends Strong Signal to the EIB: Time to Act on Climate Change