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Europe Tries to Save Net Neutrality, Is Killing It Instead

The European Parliament votes in favor of net neutrality legislation that permits internet fast and slow lanes.
October 27, 2015, 1:20pm

Today European politicians voted on proposed net neutrality legislation with the hope of preserving a free and open internet for those inside the EU. But critics, ranging from academics, popular websites and even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, have raised concerns that the bill in its current form would actually do more to harm net neutrality rather than ensure it.

Well, now it's time to be even more worried: the European Parliament voted against all of the amendments that critics had suggested, Business Insider and The Verge report, causing some to say that net neutrality is now dying in Europe.

Since early this morning, politicians in the European Parliament have debated the legislation. Patricia Toia, an Italian politician, defended it, and said, "We must vote for this regulation with no amendments," according to Netzpolitik. Others from the UK and Denmark also supported the bill, but some echoed the concerns raised by critics. Marisa Matias from Portugal highlighted ambiguity in the bill that might allows ISPs to create a two-tiered system.

Net neutrality is when different types of internet traffic cannot be valued over one another. So, an ISP might want to charge people more for playing multiplayer video games online, or perhaps streaming high quality video content. In essence, in a world without net neutrality, ISPs would get to decide what sort of content wins and loses. But when it is in place, all traffic is on an equal playing field.

The United States passed its own net neutrality law in February: one that doesn't allow blocking, throttling of traffic or 'fast lanes', where users pay larger fees to bypass restrictions. That came after months of campaigning from internet activists and companies alike.

Europe has been playing catch up, and thinks it has found a similar solution in the proposal voted on today.

But four key problems with the legislation were laid out in a letter addressed to European Parliament, and signed by around fifty difference companies and websites, including, BitTorrent, Foursquare, Netflix, Vimeo and Tumblr. The issues were also reflected in a post from Barbara van Schewick, a law professor from Stanford University and Director of Center for Internet and Society.

The "Specialized Services" Exception: this allows ISPs to offer fast lanes to companies for a higher fee, with the intention that it is used for "matters such as sensitive healthcare data, remote surgery, driverless cars and preventing terrorist attacks," according to the European Parliament website. Critics, however, feel that "specialized services" is too broadly defined, and that small businesses and startups would not be able to avoid the costly fees necessary to enter these fast lanes.

Zero-Rating: this is when certain applications are not counted against a user's monthly bandwidth limit, van Schewick explains. Examples include Facebook's controversial project. "Like fast lanes or other technical discrimination, zero-rating allows ISPs to discriminate against content that users want to see," she writes.

Class-Based Discrimination: this allows ISPs to put different types of traffic into classes, and then choose faster or slower speeds for those classes. Berners-Lee wrote that this may particularly affect encrypted traffic, because "many ISPs lump all encrypted services together in a single class, and throttle that class."

The Term "Impending Congestion": this is supposed to allow ISPs to manage traffic congestion, but "Since the meaning of "impending" is not clearly defined, this provision opens the floodgates for managing traffic at all times," van Schewick writes.

Because none of the amendments that critics had suggested have been implemented, all of those points still stand.

As for what happens now, the regulation immediately comes into force in all EU member states, according to the European Parliament website.

"Six months after that, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications would issue general guidelines for national regulators, responsible for overseeing the implementation," the site continues.