EU net neutrality law, almost a done deal, may face restart

Back in April, the European Parliament approved a tranche of telecommunications reforms that would bring in net neutrality and eliminate intra-European Union roaming fees. This “Telecom Package” is currently approaching its final hurdle – approval by EU member states, who are negotiating it with the new European Commission – but it now looks like the Commission is about to hit rewind or worse.

Yes, as the fight for net neutrality rages on in the U.S., it may be back on in Europe too. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that it has seen a “working document” sent by new European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to the various commissioners that indicates a potential revamp of not-yet-finalized laws, which would include the Telecom Package.

According to the WSJ, the letter states:

You are also invited to examine all pending proposals in your area and to signal those which we should review together, for example because they have no realistic chance of being adopted in the near future, or because the degree of ambition achievable does not match the objectives sought.

An annex to the letter recommends “a major new initiative” called the “Digital Single Market (DSM) Package.” The new head of digital matters in the EU, Andrus Ansip, has the position of “Vice-President for the Digital Single Market”, while his predecessor Neelie Kroes was “Digital Agenda” chief, so this does all sound like a overall refresh.

A year back, Kroes’s right-hand-man Ryan Heath was adamant that the Telecom Package, which she came up with, was “not a digital single market package” in name nor nature, even though part of it aimed to harmonize spectrum allocation across the EU. Carriers such as Telefonica and Vodafone sometimes referred to it as such, though, as did German telecoms industry lobbyist Bitkom.

As it stands, the Telecom Package gives a strong definition to “net neutrality” for the first time, describing it as “the principle according to which all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, recipient, type, content, device, service or application.” The package would allow ISPs to treat “specialized services” differently, but gives these a tight definition that would make it impossible to suddenly reclassify something like Netflix, which operates over the standard internet as everyone understands it, as a specialized service.

It wouldn’t stop zero-rating, which is arguably a net neutrality abuse (I’d say it is, but others disagree.) However, it’s a pretty strong and sensible net neutrality law, and it would be disastrous if it were weakened.

ISP lock-in rule change

Meanwhile, new digital economy commissioner Günther Oettinger has clarified his recent remarks about allowing ISPs to lock their customers into longer contracts, so they can make more money and therefore invest more in broadband infrastructure.

It seems this pro-monopolistic plan would be more limited in its geographical scope than he previously indicated. In a Friday blog post, Oettinger said he specifically wanted to “incentivize investment in rural areas by allowing telcos to reap the benefit of their investments.”

This would apparently not just be a matter of making it harder for customers to switch to a competing provider, but one of ensuring there is no competition at all, for a while at least. As Oettinger wrote:

It is similar to what we are already doing in the energy sector: in some limited cases, for new pipelines, companies can be exempted from the requirement to provide competitors with access to pipelines. This is only given if they can convince the EU Commission that without that exemption the investment would not have been made… In a village, wouldn’t it be better to have the option of broadband with a longer contract, than not to have broadband at all?

On several fronts, it appears hard-won battles may need to be fought again.