EU digital chief sides with Obama in defense of net neutrality

Andrus Ansip, the European Commission’s new digital chief, has said that he is “really worried” about proposals that would water down the EU’s new neutrality laws before they are finalized.

In an interview with Reuters, reported on Monday, Ansip said that U.S. President Barack Obama’s intervention into that country’s net neutrality debate took a cue from the fairly strict net neutrality rules that the European Parliament passed back in April:

All the traffic has to be treated equally. The Internet has to stay open for everybody. The president of the United States is using our wording — the wording of the European Parliament in the United States of America… It is allowed to have higher speeds — but not at the expense of others.

Europe’s net neutrality rules were proposed by Ansip’s predecessor, Neelie Kroes, as part of a “Telecom Package” of reforms. Now that it has gone through Parliament, which tightened its definitions of “net neutrality” and the “specialized services” that telecoms firms would be allowed to treat differently from normal internet services, the package is in its final legislative stage: negotiations between the Commission and the Council of the European Union, which represents the national governments of EU member states.

Last week, leaked documents drawn up by the current Italian presidency of the Council showed that member states want those tight definitions removed, and the rules-based approach to net neutrality changed to one of principles that each country could interpret differently. The document also pointed to a revision of Kroes’s proposals for abolishing intra-EU roaming fees and harmonizing radio spectrum deployment across the Union.

A week before that, another leak suggested that Ansip’s boss, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, had asked his commissioners to look out for under-development laws “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.”

The same leak referred to a “major new initiative” called the “Digital Single Market Package”, which may indicate something to replace the Telecom Package.

As I noted last week when the Council document leaked, Juncker is known as someone who wants European countries to be drawn closer together. If the Council wants to move against the harmonization of telecommunications rules, creating a patchwork of differing national laws, it would be hard to see Juncker and his “vice president for the digital single market” – Ansip – accepting this outcome.

It remains to be seen whether the answer to this conundrum would involve an about-face from the Council, a reboot of the entire EU net neutrality proposal, or a compromise that leaves Europe without meaningful net neutrality rules.