AS US REGULATORS consider new legislation to protect net neutrality, European citizens are set to have their internet freedoms significantly curbed.
The debate on net neutrality revolves around whether telcoms firms should be allowed to intentionally speed up or slow down traffic based on which service or application is being used.
While telecoms operators claim they want more control over availability in order to provide a better quality of service to users, opponents argue the operators want control in order to favour their own service over competitors’.
The European Union (EU) is set to make its final decision on whether net neutrality should be legally protected by the end of November, but according to an inside source working for the organisation, the Swedish Presidency intends to limit debate on the issue.
Effectively the EU has already decided that European broadband operators should be allowed to restrict access to services and applications at their discretion, said the source.
This is because the European Parliament already voted in favour of giving broadband operators such rights in May, the source added, and the Swedish Presidency does not want to waste time debating the issue again.
The reason there was widespread belief the debate would be opened again was because the issue of net neutrality is an area covered by the revision to the Telecoms Reform Package. The revision relates to five EU directives collectively known as the EU Telecoms Rules of 2002, and aims to make the European telecoms market more unified.
In the last EU sitting before summer recess, the European Parliament and Council could not reach a decision on the whole Telecoms Reform Package after two attempts, which meant that all modifications were to be debated again this autumn in a third reading - or so-called 'conciliation procedure'.
However, the reason the Parliament would not agree with the Council on the package was because of the Framework Directive and its Amendment 138, which relates to illegal downloading policies, rather than disagreement with the Universal Services Directive, which relates to net neutrality.
Therefore the Swedish Presidency aims to fast-track the package, said the source, and keep the third reading debate limited to Amendment 138.
The conciliation procedure will begin on 29 September and the committee from the European Parliament that will debate the issue has been picked, said the source.
This means that pretty much the only remaining option for citizens concerned about restrictions on their internet freedoms is to join in a campaign spearheaded by a French citizen rights group, La Quadrature du Net (LQDN), which calls for net neutrality to be protected. So far more than 50 NGOs from 12 member states have signed up to the agenda.
LQDN has argued that the Swedish Presidency’s decision not to discuss the issue will have disastrous consequences for EU competition, innovation and citizens’ freedom, particularly considering the US government is moving to protect net neutrality.
“It is very important for the democratic process to shine light on this disturbingly opaque conciliation negotiation,” said LQDN spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann.
Meanwhile, Jim Killock, executive director of UK Open Rights Group, also criticised the EU’s decision not to debate the issue further.
“The lack of transparency over this process is astounding. Europe needs to be a beacon of democracy,” he said.
“National governments and the EU Parliament talk behind closed doors and trying to understand the dynamics gets very difficult - even civil servants seem to have limited expectations of understanding what is going on.
“This isn't good when the decisions will affect everyone in Europe, including on the critical issue of our right to internet access."
Killock, like LQDN, said he was particularly surprised by the Swedish Presidency’s decision to limit discussion on the issue given US president Barack Obama’s decision to open up the debate.
“It should be a signal to the EU that they should take the needs of citizens and competition very seriously, rather than limit the discussion to the relatively narrow concerns of established telecoms companies,” he said.
“The US seems to value the freedom to innovate more than the EU, and we could learn something from that,” he concluded. µ