How the Commission is out-manoeuvring the European Parliament to undermine net neutrality
The European Commission wants to bring an end to the open and competitive internet in Europe, for reasons that are not completely clear. Neither multiple consultations that showed the dangers of the approach, nor internal advice about the illegality of the proposals nor the needs of European citizens and businesses have been able to hold back the Commission’s determination.
Now, the question is whether the European Parliament can act independently and, weeks before the upcoming elections in May, act in Europe’s best interests. The European Commission remains determined to stop this from happening.
The task of the Commission in persuading the Parliament seems… or seemed… insurmountable. Not alone has the Parliament repeatedly voted in favour of net neutrality in various non-binding resolutions, but it is also a non-political issue among parliamentarians. The largest group, the EPP, adopted an extensive paper on the future of the Internet calling for net neutrality to be “enshrined in European law” while, on the other side of the political spectrum, the Socialists and Democrats Group are also strong supporters of protecting the social and economic benefits of the free and open internet.
How could the European Commission overturn this seemingly insurmountable support for net neutrality? It has a plan and, remarkably, the plan is nearly complete.
Step 1: Use the elections
The first step was to make sure that the legislative proposal was launched as close as possible to the European elections. This has the dual “benefit” of ensuring that parliamentarians would be distracted by their election campaigns and ensuring that they would be working under severe time pressures. As a result, after Commissioner Kroes promised legislative safeguards for net neutrality in 2010, she did not launch her legislative proposal until September 2013. In fact, the proposal could have been launched in May 2013, but that would not have achieved the same level of time pressures on parliamentarians.
Result: The Parliament is rushing, and quickly running out of time, to finalise its opinion on the proposal before the elections. Mission accomplished.
Step 2: Add a populist element
The measures taken by Commissioner Viviane Reding between 2004 and 2009 to bring an end to the excesses of the mobile telephone operators with regard roaming fees proved to be hugely popular and generated a lot of good publicity. So, the measure to undermine net neutrality was launched in a package with strict new measures on roaming, incentivising Parliamentarians to support the package for short-term political benefit, just weeks before the elections.
This gives Parliamentarians the possibility to push the “good news” about the end of high mobile phone roaming fees and gain any available political capital. The social and economic impact of the experimentation with the functioning of the free and open internet will not be felt until after the elections. At that stage… who cares?
Result: Key parliamentarians in the European Parliament’s Industry Committee are chasing around national media claiming “credit” for bringing an end to roaming, while not fully conscious of the fact that they are also supporting anti-citizen, anti-competitive “compromises” in Brussels. Mission accomplished
Step 3: Use bizarre, complex language to make the meaning of the proposal difficult to understand
The online monopolies want to be able to pay for sponsored services, which have low download limits and/or faster access to their services (so, a user would be persuaded to have low limits, in return for a mininternet service sponsored by the online company). This will keep competitors out of the market and destroy competition and innovation. But how could the Commission possibly propose legislation that would facilitate this? The answer is to propose a text which says that discrimination is only allowed outside the framework of discriminatory contracts and download speeds – a text that sounds like it is banning discrimination. So, the Commission proposed that only:
Within the limits of any contractually agreed data volumes or speeds for internet access services, providers of internet access services shall not restrict the freedoms provided for in paragraph 1 by blocking, slowing down, degrading or discriminating against specific content, applications or services, or specific classes thereof, except in cases where it is necessary to apply reasonable traffic management measures.
Result: None of the leading Parliamentarians working on the dossier have been able to grasp the duplicity of this text and neither of the main “compromise amendments” to be voted on shortly will fix this problem. Mission almost accomplished.
Step 4: Pretend that you are supporting net neutrality
At the same time as proposing text which will undermine net neutrality in Europe, Commissioner Kroes is energetically claiming that she supports it. With some very inventive public relations techniques from her team, anyone not familiar with the file would be mistaken for believing her.
Result: Many parliamentarians are reassured that the Commissioner seems to be effectively able to communicate that she is protecting net neutrality at the same time as she is dismantling it. Parliamentarians are reassured that the political risks are therefore comparatively low. Mission accomplished
Over the next few weeks we will discover if a Parliament that was united in its support for net neutrality has now been successfully manipulated into bringing net neutrality to an end – against the interests of its citizens, against the interests of its businesses. Even worse, will it do so by the adoption of a misleading, bureaucratic EU-wide regulation?
There is still a long way to go in this dossier and there is a growing realisation in the European Parliament that there is something profoundly wrong with how this whole process is being managed by the European Commission. For more information on the campaign to save the free and open internet in Europe – and how citizens can participate – see savetheinternet.eu.