Open internet advocates celebrated on Tuesday after Europe's top telecom authority issued stronger-than-expected guidelines protecting net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible to consumers.
The new guidelines, which were announced by the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communication (BEREC), are designed to ensure that European consumers have unfettered access to the global internet, and the freedom to choose what kind of digital devices they use to communicate online.
The guidelines, which provide a roadmap to help the various EU national regulators implement the recently-passed Telecoms Single Market Regulation, the continent's new telecom law, represent a significant victory for net neutrality advocates in the multi-year battle between public interest groups and European telecom giants over how best to ensure that the internet remains an open platform for free speech and innovation.
"Based on a preliminary reading of the text, this is a triumph for the European digital rights movement," Thomas Lohninger, a leading net neutrality activist who helped spearhead the SaveTheInternet.eu campaign, said in a statement. "After a very long battle, and with the support of half a million people, the principles that make the internet an open platform for change, freedom and prosperity are upheld in the EU."
The BEREC guidelines state that internet users "have the right to access and distribute information and content, use and provide applications and services, and use terminal equipment of their choice, irrespective of the end-user's or provider's location or the location, origin or destination of the information, content, application or service, via their internet access service."
"Europe is now a global standard-setter in the defence of the open, competitive and neutral internet," Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights, a Brussels-based consortium of public interest groups, said in a statement. "We congratulate BEREC on its diligent work, its expertise and its refusal to bend to the unreasonable pressure placed on it by the big telecoms lobby."
For European net neutrality activists, Tuesday's victory was by no means certain. Last month, a coalition of open internet advocates led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Wide, warned that the Telecoms Single Market Regulation was riddled with loopholes.
As BEREC prepared to issue its final guidelines, Berners-Lee and two colleagues, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick, helped organize a grassroots campaign that resulted in nearly 500,000 public comments filed with BEREC, most supporting strong net neutrality protections.
Berners-Lee and his colleagues were particularly concerned that the guidelines would allow for so-called "specialized services" that could result in internet "fast lanes" for deep-pocketed corporate giants. And they urged BEREC to take a strong stance against the controversial practice of "zero-rating," in which telecom companies exempt certain services like Facebook or YouTube from data caps, creating an economic incentive for consumers to use some services over others.
To the relief of open internet access advocates, the new EU guidelines include strengthened safeguards against both "fast lanes" and "zero-rating," and only allow for "specialized services" in a limited number of cases where data "optimization" is "objectively necessary," including connectivity for driverless cars and remote medical applications.
"To restrict zero-rating is necessary to avoid that specific services are privileged at the expense of more innovative newcomers," Monique Goyens, Director General of The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), said in a statement. "Consumers might be happy to continue using Facebook even if they hit their subscription limit. But in the long run it will play against them because it prevents competitors from entering the market."
The new guidelines follow months of lobbying by the largest telecom companies in Europe in an effort to weaken the new policy. Last month, more than a dozen European telecom giants including BT Group, Deutsche Telekom, and Orange threatened not to invest in the next generation of 5G mobile networks unless EU regulators weakened the proposed net neutrality guidelines.
Anne Jellema, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, which was founded by Berners-Lee, described the new EU policy as "particularly significant as it has been achieved in the face of intense lobbying from powerful telecommunications companies who wanted to see first the law, and then the guidelines watered down."
Matthias Kurth, Executive Chairman of Cable Europe, an industry group that represents European cable and telecom companies, urged the various European national regulators to use "caution" when implementing the BEREC guidelines.
"We recognise that the potential for digital transformation must not be fettered by overly prescriptive rules that will stifle innovation and put lead boots on the boundless potential of our digital technology," Kurth said in a statement. "Much rests now on the use of these guidelines by regulators, which whilst allowing National Regulatory Authorities the necessary autonomy could result in a negative outcome for progressive innovation."
For open internet advocates, the EU's strong net neutrality guidelines amount to the latest in a series of victories protecting net neutrality worldwide, from India to the United States. In June, a US federal court upheld strong net neutrality rules in a landmark ruling following years of legal battles.
"Internet users have fought and won net neutrality protections in India, South America and the United States," Timothy Karr, Senior Director of Strategy at DC-based public interest group Free Press, said in an emailed statement. "Europe's decision today—heeding the advice of internet users who favor robust safeguards for the open internet—is an essential part of this global push to advance the online rights of everyone."