Europe Is About to Make Some Big Decisions on Net Neutrality

Advocates are cautiously optimistic after a leaked draft of the EU's net neutrality guidelines.

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Jun 5 2016, 5:00pm

Image: Flickr/Eric Fischer.

Back in 2014, grassroots activists in the US helped win an important victory for net neutrality, the principle that internet services providers like Verizon and Comcast shouldn't arbitrarily block or prioritize the speeds of some sites and services over others. Now, Europe is on the verge of a similar showdown, as the European Union's Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) prepares to reveal new guidelines that will clarify net neutrality regulations passed last November.

A draft of those guidelines leaked online ahead of BEREC's announcement on Monday, and while the rules show promise, they leave much to be desired in the minds of net neutrality advocates.

Specifically, advocates are worried about loopholes that allow practices like "zero rating," in which ISPs don't count the use of certain apps and services against customers' data caps, causing those services to be heavily favored over their competitors. While India successfully pushed backed against this trend by rejecting Facebook's controversial "Free Basics" program for internet access, US net neutrality rules largely failed to fight ISPs on zero-rating, as evidenced by an increasing number of free streaming programs like T-Mobile's "Binge On."

Another contentious practice allowed by the draft guidelines is "specialized services," which effectively allows service providers to prioritize speeds of certain services that otherwise wouldn't be able to function properly. The draft guidelines state that ISPs can't give these specialized services "fast lanes" that prioritize traffic at the expense of other users. But the rules also say that service providers would be free to set the quality of these services at their own discretion. Depending on how broadly this is interpreted, it could be used to as a loophole around the fast lane ban.

"The rules could end up on par with those in Brazil, India, and the US. Or they could end up much weaker. It's up for grabs," said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-director of the activist group Fight For The Future, in an email sent to Motherboard.

"If the rules give an edge to big established sites with the ability to make special deals (e.g. Google and Facebook) that makes those sites harder to compete with, globally, and it will tilt the internet's future in the direction of big corporations."

So far, most net neutrality advocates seem cautiously optimistic overall about the draft guidelines. But the final details will likely have a huge impact both in the EU and other countries still etching out the fine print of net neutrality.