Europe is running out of time to protect net neutrality.
One month after a US federal court upheld strong rules protecting net neutrality—the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible—the battle over how to protect the internet's open, freewheeling nature has shifted to Europe.
A coalition of prominent open internet advocates, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is mounting a last-ditch campaign urging European officials to stand up to the telecom industry and strengthen the EU's net neutrality policy before the bloc's regulatory public consultation period ends on Monday.
"Securing this is essential to preserve the open internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress."
"Network neutrality for hundreds of millions of Europeans is within our grasp," Berners-Lee wrote in an open letter to European regulators. The letter was also signed by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick, both prominent tech policy experts and longtime net neutrality crusaders.
"Securing this is essential to preserve the open internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress," the trio wrote. "But the public needs to tell regulators now to strengthen safeguards, and not cave in to telecommunications carriers' manipulative tactics."
Last fall, the EU adopted a law, known as the Telecoms Single Market Regulation, that open internet advocates say is riddled with loopholes allowing practices that undermine the principle of net neutrality.
For example, the law would allow so-called "specialized services" that could result in pay-to-play "fast lanes" for deep-pocketed corporate giants, according to open internet advocates. Such fast lanes are anathema to the principle of net neutrality, because they create an uneven playing field favoring those who can afford to pay for prioritized service—and discriminating against those who can't.
"Regulators need to close this loophole by clarifying that the 'specialized services' exception cannot be used to create fast lanes for normal internet content," Berners-Lee, Lessig, and van Schewick wrote. "In a world where some websites can pay telcos to be in the 'fast lane,' anyone who can't afford the extra fees—startups, small businesses, bloggers, artists, activists, and everyday Europeans—will be left behind in the slow lane."
The EU law also leaves the door open for "zero-rating," in which telecom companies exempt certain services from data caps, creating an economic incentive for consumers to use some services over others, effectively establishing the kind of discriminatory environment that net neutrality policies are designed to prevent.
"Like fast lanes, zero-rating lets carriers pick winners and losers by making certain apps more attractive than others," Berners-Lee, Lessig, and van Schewick wrote. "The guidelines need a comprehensive, Europe-wide ban on harmful forms of zero-rating."
As in the US, many of the largest telecom companies in Europe vigorously oppose net neutrality protections.
The EU law went into effect in April, and for the last month the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communication (BEREC), has been seeking public input on draft guidelines that will determine how the law is implemented. Berners-Lee and his colleagues are urging open internet supporters to contact EU regulators and push for stronger net neutrality protections.
As in the US, many of the largest telecom companies in Europe vigorously oppose net neutrality protections, and are even lobbying EU regulators to make the existing, loophole-filled law weaker.
Last week, more than a dozen European telecom giants threatened not to invest in the next generation of 5G mobile networks unless EU regulators weaken the proposed net neutrality guidelines.
"The telecom industry warns that the current net neutrality guidelines, as put forward by BEREC, create significant uncertainties around 5G return on investment," the companies wrote in a "manifesto" signed by executives from BT Group, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and other telecom giants. "Investments are therefore likely to be delayed unless regulators take a positive stance on innovation and stick to it."
Open internet advocates argue that net neutrality is crucial for creating an online environment that fosters innovation and economic growth. So it's not surprising that many European venture capitalists and startup entrepreneurs are strongly in favor of robust EU net neutrality protections.
Factory Berlin, a startup incubator based in the heart of Germany's capital, has been especially active in organizing European entrepreneurs to rally around the pro-net neutrality campaign. The group was particularly alarmed when Timotheus Höttges, the CEO of Deutsche Telekom, floated the idea of a "revenue-sharing" model in which startups pay "a couple of percent" in order to receive "guaranteed good transmission quality."
Open internet advocates fear that the European telecom industry's lobbying campaign is gaining traction with regulators.
"We believe data and access to data is a common right, that should never be influenced by capital, in the sense of deciding who gets to see what," Factory Berlin's leaders wrote in a statement, adding that Höttges' proposal "would be like your power utility provider asking you for a revenue share—because the power they sell you does amazing things when used by the CPU of your laptop. Highway robbery."
Open internet advocates fear that the European telecom industry's lobbying campaign is gaining traction with regulators. Last week, Günther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, who is in charge of the net neutrality proceeding, published the telecom companies' manifesto on the European Commission's website and praised it on Twitter.
"We—the ordinary users of the internet—don't have expensive lobbyists," Berners-Lee, Lessig, and van Schewick wrote. "But we have millions of people—everyday Europeans, startups, investors, small businesses, activists, NGOs, bloggers, independent artists—who have experienced the power of the open internet first hand and want to protect it."
The deadline for filing comments is 2pm CEST (8am EDT) on Monday, July 18.