Can Europe really offer startups a better deal on net neutrality?

As net neutrality goes down in flames stateside…

Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of the digital economy, has a point. The potential end of net neutrality rules is going to be really bad for U.S. consumers and startups alike (as my colleague Stacey Higginbotham has noted, the likes of Google(s goog) and Netflix(s nflx) are actually winners in this scenario, as they have deep pockets).

However, some may dispute Kroes’s characterization of Europe as a safe haven. The Commission recently adopted proposals (that need to be ratified this year) that many see as falling short of promising true net neutrality.


“Providers of content, applications and services and providers of electronic communications to the public should therefore be free to conclude specialised services agreements on defined levels of quality of service as long as such agreements do not substantially impair the general quality of internet access services.”

In other words, ISPs should be able to charge content providers — offering, say, IPTV or videoconferencing services — for joining a new fast lane, as long as the regular internet doesn’t suffer. As network investment would probably gravitate towards that fast lane, good luck with maintaining the quality of all the other traffic over time.

One major point in Kroes’s favor is this: the European broadband scene is for the most part much more competitive than that in the U.S. – there are simply more players in most areas, making lock-in less of an issue. On top of that, another part of her telecoms reforms would ensure that people can switch provider at no penalty if they think they’re not getting a good-enough service, so there would arguably be a good incentive to keep everything running smoothly.

But that’s about consumption. On the supply side, there’s still a good deal of scope in there for replication of the scenario the U.S. now faces, with big players able to outspend the minnows and their pesky innovation, and buy their way into “free with the package” prominence. The devil is in the details, and fans of competition will be hoping for the language of the EU proposals to be tightened up before they hit the European Parliament for a vote.

If Europe really does get net neutrality, that will be the right time to start crowing.