Europe’s net neutrality law passes crucial committee vote with poor safeguards

The European Parliament’s industry committee has passed Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes’s big telecoms legislation package, including a contentious section covering net neutrality.

The legislation is ostensibly supposed to entrench the principles of net neutrality in European law for the first time, guaranteeing that broadband and mobile providers treat all internet services equally. However, part of the wording refers to “specialized services” that can be exempted from this principle, and the wording of the package as passed on Tuesday defines these services quite broadly.

While some ISP-provided specialized services such as IPTV and machine-to-machine communications clearly work better when they have dedicated capacity working outside of what a consumer may think of as their standard internet connection, the wording of the passed package does not make this distinction clear — it could allow normal web video to be classified as a specialized service, for example. The risk, therefore, is that ISPs strike deals with certain content providers, such as Netflix(s nflx), that favor their content over similar services on the “open web”.

The package has already seen its ups and downs – the last committee, which dealt with consumer rights, made significant improvements — and there is still scope for change before it goes for a plenary vote of the full European Parliament on April 3rd. That is pretty soon, though.

The industry committee’s output serves as advice for the Parliament, but the Parliament will still have to get the package through the European Council (i.e. Europe’s national governments) if it is to become law. Heavily contentious elements in the package provide a potential blocker to that approval.

The package also includes a lot of good stuff about lower roaming charges and other aspects of telecoms regulation, and its net neutrality provisions do at least stop ISPs from being able to block certain types of service – no more mobile carriers blocking Skype(s msft) because it hurts their voice revenues, for example. It would be a shame to see the current loopholes mar or threaten otherwise-useful steps forward.

According to Miriam Artino, legal and policy analyst at digital rights group La Quadrature du Net, the Tuesday vote was “a sign of the massive lobbying influence of big telecom operators over the European legislative process,” but all is not lost:

“The regulation’s big loopholes will have to be corrected when the European Parliament casts its final vote in a few weeks. The many MEPs who have proposed constructive amendments at the committee stage now have an opportunity to table new amendments across party lines so as to ensure that the general interest prevails over the short-term commercial interests of the telecom industry.”