On Thursday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to limit the power of telecom providers to charge third parties for faster network access. The legislative bundle, which does not distinguish between mobile and landline networks, contains amendments that define and protect net neutrality across the 28-member European Union. The FCC in the U.S. also tried to protect net neutrality through a set of regulations, but Verizon fought those regulations in court two months ago and won. In remarks following the vote, EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said that E.U. delivered the vote for its citizens. The proposed law still needs final endorsement by the next European Parliament, which will be elected in May. Given that final endorsement, an agreement will then need to be reached between Parliament and the European Commission. It is expected that some European leaders will water down proposals made by left and center politicians. Passage into law, therefore, is not a done deal just yet. It does, however, mark what ZDNet’s Zach Whittaker calls the “largest collective national push for net neutrality” thus far. The only countries that currently have net neutrality laws in place are Slovenia and the Netherlands.
What is net neutrality, and why is it important? The term was coined by Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, to refer to a founding principle of the Internet mandating that all users be able to experience the Internet without regulation or interference from the government or Internet Service Providers (ISPs). According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), if the entities delivering the content, meaning ISPs, are allowed to discriminate against different types of data, then they may “play favorites because they disagree with the message being delivered or want to charge more money for faster delivery.” In other words, the ACLU states, corporate profits or disfavor of competing services or controversial viewpoints could change both the quality of one’s connection and what one can see on the Internet.
Who supports net neutrality? Nearly every individual, business and organization not involved with the phone and cable companies. Currently, cable and telephone companies provide 94 percent of broadband Internet access, and they want to be able to discriminate in favor of their own services and content.
As of February 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia invalidated the Open Internet regulations that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had adopted in 2010 to protect the openness of the Internet. Verizon Communications challenged those rules in court and won. The court’s decision states that the FCC does have the authority to regulate broadband access, but that the Open Internet regulations it created were based on statutes that applied to telecommunications services, not broadband providers. Therefore, the decision states, because the FCC has made a distinction between these types of providers, they must be regulated distinctly as well. The fact that the appeals court recognizes the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband access is a victory because, the ACLU states, the FCC “could impose new and potentially even stronger rules, so long as it relies on the right source of authority.”
Until the FCC comes up with Open Internet regulations that cannot be challenged in court, February’s decision paves the way for a new ISP business model. Eventually, this will have a major effect on the services that consumers use. Users may not be able to access certain content, or they may have to pay extra for it. One analogy that has been made to explain net neutrality is in terms of cable television: More people see Fox News than MSNBC. This is not because Fox is more popular but because it is included in the basic cable package. The delivery system is rigged to favor Fox. On Thursday, the E.U. put itself ahead of the U.S. in Net Neutrality, but both have many hurdles to go to surmount before the fight is over. The phone and cable companies can at least be counted on for that much.
By Donna Westlund