Europe's telecommunications regulator has published final guidelines on how the EU will implement net neutrality rules that were adopted last year, in what digital rights groups are hailing as a victory for the free and open internet. The guidelines, published Tuesday, clarify vaguely worded provisions that experts say could have been exploited by telecoms to favor certain internet services over others.
The net neutrality rules adopted by the European Parliament last year aimed to strengthen net neutrality by requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all web traffic equally, without favoring some services over others. But the regulations contained several loopholes that raised concerns among net neutrality advocates, including a provision that would have allowed ISPs to create "fast lanes" for "specialized services," and another that would have allowed for zero-rating, under which certain services and apps would be exempt from counting against monthly data limits. A "traffic management" provision would have allowed telecoms to prioritize internet traffic from some services over others.
"a triumph for the European digital rights movement"
Those provisions were clarified under the guidelines published today by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). "ISPs are prohibited from blocking or slowing down of Internet traffic, except where necessary," BEREC said. "The exceptions are limited to: traffic management to comply with a legal order, to ensure network integrity and security, and to manage congestion, provided that equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally."
The guidelines prohibit zero-rating in circumstances "where all applications are blocked or slowed down once the data cap is reached," though they acknowledge that some cases are "less clear-cut." European regulators should assess such practices on a case-by-case basis, BEREC said, taking account for factors such as the market share of an ISP, effects on app choice, and the scale of the practice. The regulations also allow for traffic management "under limited circumstances;" traffic management practices that block, interfere with, or slow down services and apps would be banned.
The guidelines provide examples of what could be considered as a specialized service, including VoLTE (high-quality voice calls), linear IPTV services, and remote surgeries, which would operate separately from the internet. Such services would have to meet certain quality and capacity requirements to ensure that they can only operate on networks that are not connected to the internet.
Net neutrality advocates welcomed BEREC's guidelines as a milestone for the open internet in Europe. "Europe is now a global standard-setter in the defense of the open, competitive and neutral internet," Joe McNamee, executive director of the Brussels-based organization European Digital Rights (EDRi), said in a statement. Net neutrality activist Thomas Lohninger, of SaveTheInternet.eu, described the tougher guidelines as "a triumph for the European digital rights movement."
"competition, innovation, and creative expression"
"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," Lohninger said in a statement.
BEREC published draft guidelines on how the rules will be implemented by EU member states in June, and opened them to public consultation, garnering more than 480,000 responses. Major telecoms lobbied heavily for the regulatory body to adopt a more relaxed interpretation of the rules. More than 20 telecoms — including Vodafone, BT, and Deutsche Telekom — published a "manifesto" in July, saying that they would not introduce high-speed 5G networks unless BEREC took a softer approach to net neutrality. ISPs in Europe and the US have argued that aggressive net neutrality regulations would harm their business.
In response, world wide web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, together with law professors Barbara van Schewick and Larry Lessig, published an open letter calling on European regulators to "save the open internet."
"Strong guidelines will protect the future of competition, innovation, and creative expression in Europe, enhancing Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy," the letter said. "They will ensure that every European, no matter the color of their skin or the size of their wallets, has an equal chance to innovate, compete, speak, organize, and connect online."
Julia Reda, Member of European Parliament for the Pirate Party, said that authorities will have to "stay vigilant" on zero-rating practices as national regulators assess them on a case-by-case basis, but she described the regulations as "a victory for civil society" in a blog post published Tuesday.
"By demanding strong net neutrality in record numbers, Europeans managed to overcome massive lobbying by the telecom industry and narrowly avert a catastrophe for the internet," Reda said.