By Heini Järvinen

After the big vote on net neutrality in the European Parliament on 3 April 2014, many people are asking “what now”? The answer is that the Council of Ministers of the European Union will decide what parts of the overall “Telecoms Single Market Regulation” it can accept, which parts it wants to amend and which parts it wants to reject completely. The Council is made up of the ministers responsible for telecommunications from the 28 Member States of the European Union.

The views of the 28 ministers vary widely. On the one hand, countries like the Netherlands and Slovenia see a need to protect the open and pro-competition legislation that they have already put in place. On the other, countries whose governments have, for various reasons, maintained uncompetitive oligarchies in their telecoms markets, would prefer to maintain and expand this approach.

Somewhere in the middle, the UK wants to both have competition and to permit non-competitive blocking, as long as the companies in question tell the consumer what services are being blocked – with the blocked services having not choice other than to pay for access to the ISP’s customers or be cut out of that part of the market. The national regulator, Ofcom, simply wants access providers not to call their services “Internet access services”, if they are not providing access to the full Internet. Remarkably, even though the current “code of practice” in the UK is very weak, some major companies have still not signed up to it. More remarkably still, the UK would prefer to have this confusion multiplied in each of the 28 EU Member States rather than supporting the basic principle that the open Internet should be clearly protected in law.

Obviously, the Commission’s “package” approach (where radio spectrum, net neutrality, enforcement and mobile roaming are squeezed together for no obvious reason) means that unrelated policy areas will be traded off against each other in the negotiations, in order to be able to produce a final legislative instrument. After an overwhelming vote of the European Parliament in favour of net neutrality and the overall package, the big question is whether Council can use its famously untransparent procedures to reject the democratic decision of the Parliament and bounce the new Parliament into rejecting the pro-innovation position that it has just adopted.

The next stage in the process is that the proposals will be discussed under the Greek presidency of the Council until the end of June, and then (under the six-month revolving presidency) under the Italian presidency. As several of the bigger countries in the EU (France, Italy and the UK, for example) are opposed to net neutrality, it will be difficult to build a strong majority. On the other hand, the European Parliament has equal powers, so its strong pro-net neutrality position can only be overturned if it allows this to happen. The upcoming European Parliament elections are therefore crucial for the future of net neutrality.

UK’s net neutrality position
http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2011/11/improving-traffic-management-transparency/

Council voting procedures
http://www.consilium.europa.eu/council/voting-system-at-the-council?tab=Voting-calculator

European Parliament leads the world with open internet vote (03.04.2014)
http://edri.org/european-parliament-leads-world-open-internet-vote

(Contribution by Joe McNamee – EDRi)