The European Union is poised to vote on a critical package of Internet rules Tuesday that will determine how millions of European citizens access the Web. In many ways, the situation in Europe is similar to our own: The proposal is meant to ensure that all Internet traffic, from e-mail to online videos, gets treated equally by Internet providers. And it has prompted a standoff between consumer advocates and industry officials as they fight to determine the future of the Internet. Read on to get up to speed on it.
Give me a refresher. What is net neutrality, again?
It's the concept that your Internet provider shouldn't be allowed to block, slow down or speed up certain Web sites over others, particularly in exchange for money. The goal of net neutrality is to make it so that new companies on the Internet can effectively compete with more established ones. If they had to pay or were disadvantaged in some other manner, the smaller firms might have less of a chance to succeed, according to advocates. Net neutrality is also a policy that's been adopted by the United States.
So what's the story in Europe?
The European proposal requires Internet providers to treat their customers' Web traffic "without discrimination, restriction or interference," but critics say it's riddled with loopholes.
Who's saying that, and why?
The opponents include many of the same actors who pushed the Federal Communications Commission for stronger U.S. rules, including Stanford University's Barbara van Schewick and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. A number of companies and venture capitalists also weighed in Sunday with a letter to European officials. The group includes Etsy, Kickstarter, Netflix and reddit.
These critics allege that the EU proposal would still let Internet providers violate net neutrality by calling favored commercial partners "specialized services," a distinct category of traffic that can receive different treatment. They also say it doesn't do enough to prevent companies from exempting favored services from customer data caps, a practice that could help consumers save money on their monthly bills but that could potentially stifle new companies from entering the market.
There are also concerns that the European version of net neutrality would let Internet providers group certain services into "classes" that are defined however the providers want, and that the classes would be subject to arbitrary speed manipulation at any time. Even outside of these traffic classes, providers would be allowed to speed up some traffic or slow down others to manage congestion before it starts.
Wait. Don't these loopholes already exist in the U.S. rules?
Some do. For instance, analysts have expressed concerns over the specialized services loophole in the FCC's policy, but so far we haven't seen much evidence that American Internet providers are taking advantage of it. In the United States, companies like T-Mobile have exempted streaming music services from subscribers' data plans, but the practice has largely been limited to mobile broadband service. It's a bigger issue overseas, particularly in developing countries where the cost of Internet access can be prohibitively high.
But Europe's proposed rules appear to go out of their way to let carriers deal with network congestion. In the United States, providers are allowed to perform "reasonable network management" to ensure the lines stay clear and functional. By contrast, the EU proposal allows carriers to anticipate and preempt periods of peak demand:
Measures going beyond such reasonable traffic management measures might also be necessary to prevent impending network congestion, that is, situations where congestion is about to materialise.
Because the proposal doesn't clearly define what "impending" means, van Schewick writes, "this provision opens the floodgates for managing traffic at all times."
Okay. So the EU policy basically contains some of the same loopholes as ours, with some extra. What do the proposal's defenders and Internet providers have to say about it?
The European Parliament pointed out in a release last week that Internet providers wouldn't be allowed to offer specialized services to the public "if they restrict bandwidth and speed for everyday internet users and websites." It also said that lawmakers would give each EU member country the freedom to decide for itself whether to allow the exemption of online services from data caps.
Industry groups such as the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) and the Global System for Mobiles Association (GSMA) have pushed for more relaxed regulations, warning against an "overly prescriptive" approach that could hurt innovation and their member businesses.
"Leading investors have identified regulation as the 'single most important driver' of the sector, underlining that — compared to other areas of the world — the EU is the region facing the harshest regulation," ETNO members wrote in a letter to the European Council in June. "For this reason, we ask for urgent reforms to remove regulatory barriers to more investment in digital infrastructure."
You said the situation in Europe was similar to ours. This debate feels pretty familiar.
Yes. Certain aspects of the two policies are similar, and on both sides of the Atlantic we've seen big political battles over net neutrality. The stakes over there are just as high as they were here: The outcome of Tuesday's vote will shape what the Internet looks like in Europe, which will ultimately affect the wider Internet because, as many of us know, the Internet is a network of networks.