Next week, the European Union Parliament will vote on the net neutrality package as well as other telecom regulations. However, according to activists, the new regulations have some major flaws in them, which could lead to Internet providers abusing their power and ultimately hurting Internet users in the EU.
How We Got Here
Back in 2013, it was looking like the EU would be the first to pass strong net neutrality laws, way ahead of the U.S. However, this happened during the mandate of the previous European Commission (EC), where the lead on drafting the net neutrality package was taken by Neelie Kroes, then an EC Vice-President, and a strong digital rights activist.
Passing the baton to a new European Commission eventually led to a watering down of the initial draft, as the new EC "compromised" with wireless operators in order to abolish roaming fees.
High roaming costs have been a huge issue for a long time in the EU, because they discourage communication across EU countries and citizens. The EU project is meant to create strong unity between the nations, so high roaming fees were antithetical to the whole plan. (Imagine what $0.5/minute costs when calling into another U.S. state would be like.)
However, this used to be a much bigger issue in the past than it is now and will be in the future. More and more people are using data-based communication such as email, instant messengers, and even VOIP calls, which are now integrated into many popular messengers, including Skype, Hangouts, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and so on.
Ten years from now, calling someone from another EU country should be a complete non-issue for everyone, regardless of roaming costs. Therefore, "compromising" by giving a larger degree of control to ISPs and wireless operators over the Internet to get this "win" in free roaming doesn't sound like a great deal.
The future of the Internet is much more important, and the Internet providers know this, which is why they were so willing to (finally) compromise on abolishing roaming fees (they've resisted any price reductions in the past). They know it would be more profitable to have higher control over the Internet than keep the roaming fees, which in ten or so years will be irrelevant anyway.
Four Main Problems
Internet activists are now calling on everyone from the EU to contact their MEPs and urge them to support the amendments that would "fix" the watered down net neutrality legislative package. They see four main problems that need fixing, which could potentially become even worse than currently imagined due to some vague language in the regulation.
Fast Lanes As "Specialized Services"
Potentially allowing fast lanes became a key issue in the U.S., and it's a big reason why the new net neutrality rules were pushed by the FCC. Fast lanes can hurt startups the most, because the Internet providers become gate-keepers that can charge large sums of money for quality service, which only big companies would be able to pay.
The EU is already far behind the U.S., even on its own territories, with large U.S. companies finding more success than local European companies. It wouldn't be a good idea to hurt small EU companies that could one day rise to challenge the big American players.
Although the new net neutrality regulation doesn't specifically allow "fast lanes," it does allow something called "specialized services," which means Internet providers can have dedicated higher-performance lanes but only in certain categories, such as TV, VOIP, connectivity for self-driving cars, and healthcare. However, the language of the net neutrality draft is written in such a way that Internet providers could interpret it to mean they can create all sorts of "specialized services."
Even without that interpretation, it may not be a good idea to allow the creation of dedicated lanes even for those types of services. Although the Internet providers could offer TV on a more reliable lane, they could also invest more in the "regular" lane, so their TV service would work just as well.
Many people already seem content with services such as Netflix, which go over the regular Internet. These users don't even have 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps connections, which are already either very common for the former, or getting installed throughout Europe for the latter.
When more people have 1 Gbps connections within a few years, it may not make sense to allow Internet providers to create dedicated lanes for certain services, especially if that means they will invest less in the regular lane.
The activists organizing the movement to fix this issue in the net neutrality package are asking the EU Parliament to at least "clarify the criteria defining specialised services to disallow discrimination on the network."
Zero-rating, also called "positive discrimination" by the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, could be allowed under the latest net neutrality proposal. Zero-rating, or not counting data usage against a user's data plan for a certain service, is discriminatory against companies that can't make the same kind of deal with the Internet providers, whether it's because they can't afford it or simply because the provider isn't interested in doing the deal with that service.
This once again makes the Internet provider a gate-keeper on the Internet for the services that people should access most. People in general are attracted by free-to-use services, so they would have an incentive to use the service that is zero-rated rather than its competitors. This leads to monopolies in the long-term, which is also a bad thing for normal Internet users.
The activists believe the Parliament should "add a provision to enable member states to ban the anti-competitive, discriminatory practices" in order to fix this glaring issue in the net neutrality package.
One of the most dangerous proposals in the net neutrality draft is allowing Internet providers to define "classes" of content, which they could speed up or slow down at will, even when there is no congestion.
This is dangerous because the Internet providers could decide to throttle certain types of traffic such as encrypted traffic (which they may not like because they want to inject trackers into the users' streams), VPN traffic (also encrypted, but they may throttle it for geo-location/anti-piracy reasons), and also certain types of P2P traffic, which may or may not be legal, but they could throttle so there isn't so much "redundant" data exchanges on the network (which is common with P2P traffic).
If they identify the source of certain traffic, they could also throttle VOIP calls, especially if problem #1 isn't fixed, where they'll be allowed to create their own dedicated VOIP lanes and then would have an incentive to throttle competitors.
In the end, any of this will end up harming competition and Internet users by creating a worse experience for them for certain types of Internet services or applications that they use.
The activists want the Parliament to "modify the provisions on traffic management to ensure equal treatment of traffic. Traffic management should be transparent, targeted and in accordance with the law."
Managing “Impending" Congestion
This final major problem is what makes the previous problem much worse. The network management provisions are defined so that extreme measures such as throttling certain types of traffic are only taken when there is congestion on the network.
However, the net neutrality package contains language that allows the Internet providers to use the same tools they would use during a time of congestion when there is "impending congestion," as well. This is in danger of being interpreted as "almost anytime." The providers could start throttling certain classes of traffic so that they "never" have to run into the congestion problem in the first place.
The problem with this is once again discrimination. These tools shouldn't be used unless there's actual congestion. Most of the time, their customers should be free to use whatever services they like at the maximum speed and bandwidth provided by the Internet providers.
The activists demand that the EU Parliament "clarify the rules for managing congestion to prevent ISPs from interfering with the network for a discriminatory reason."
Next week, the net neutrality package will be up for vote. The package will likely pass "as-is" unless EU citizens start complaining about these issues by contacting their MEPs and asking them to vote for the amendments that the activists proposed to fix these four main problems.
If there are many amendments that pass, members of the Parliament and the EU Council (prime ministers) will have to negotiate and reach a compromise, after which there will be another vote in six weeks. The final compromise will have to be adopted by both the Parliament and the Council, so the more people express their opinions now, the higher the chance a stronger net neutrality regulation will be adopted in the EU.
Lucian Armasu joined Tom’s Hardware in early 2014. He writes news stories on mobile, chipsets, security, privacy, and anything else that might be of interest to him from the technology world. Outside of Tom’s Hardware, he dreams of becoming an entrepreneur.