EU privacy ruling should apply globally, says digital chief

One of the most interesting questions in European tech privacy circles right now is about territoriality and the so-called “right to be forgotten” — when an EU citizen requests the delisting of a piece of information about them from Google’s search results, should it apply only in Europe or around the world?

On Thursday Andrus Ansip, the EU vice president in charge of the digital single market, said the delisting should apply globally. He gave this as his personal opinion — he has no say in the matter — but that opinion comes down on the side of Europe’s data protection regulators, who fear that limited implementation is too easily circumvented by visiting non-European versions of Google. Google’s expert advisors have almost unanimously taken the opposing view, arguing that Europe has no right to impose its privacy laws on the rest of the world.

Whose law is it anyway?

Here’s what Ansip said during a round-table Q&A session at the Google-sponsored Startup Europe Summit in Berlin:

Everybody has to respect a decision made by the courts. This right to be forgotten is not just based on a decision of court, but a court decision based on EU legislation. [It is] not a new principle. I think if a decision is made [and the] court case is closed, then it covers the whole company, not just some territories, but this is my personal view in this case.

The decision in question was made last year by the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s highest court, in a case involving a Spanish man who wanted to remove from Google’s results an old news article about his long-ago debt problems. The CJEU’s decision set a new precedent by saying EU data protection law, which allows people to request the erasure of out-of-date information about themselves in limited circumstances, applied to search engines.

The question of how far its implementation should extend touches on a fundamental conundrum about the internet — countries need to be able to apply their laws online as they do offline, but the onlne layer’s lack of inherent borders makes that difficult to do effectively. If countries can impose their laws on the world, that means what internet users see can be affected by the laws of multiple countries at once, and not just their own.

Data protection and net neutrality

Ansip also touched on the issue of Europe’s tough new data protection laws, which he wants to get through the Council stage (i.e. final approval by the member states) by the end of this year. This legislative package would massively boost online privacy rights, providing a right to the erasure of personal data and allowing for much harsher fines on companies from anywhere in the world that mishandle the data of European citizens.

The vice president said he said he was against watering down the new privacy rules in order to strike a compromise: “I don’t think we have to protect everybody’s privacy, everybody’s personal data just because of some kind of directive or agencies that are asking to do that. To protect privacy, to protect data is a must.”

On the subject of net neutrality, which is part of a separate legislative package that’s also being finalized with member states, Ansip appeared a little less clear. Having earlier in the day maintained in an on-stage session that some kinds of web traffic may require prioritization over others, and having then insisted that “similar traffic has to be treated equally”, he went on to suggest during the round-table Q&A that “if we make tough standards then we will not leave space for innovations”.

It is very difficult to tell at this stage where he might compromise with the Council, some members of whom are more keen on loose principles than tight, enforceable net neutrality rules. He said on Thursday that it was important to reach consensus so as to give predictability to network investors and startups alike, and noted (in what seems to be an approving tone) that the latest Council proposals were “pretty close to the Commission’s proposal”.

The Commission’s proposal – the first draft of Europe’s incoming net neutrality law — was heavily toughened up by the European Parliament before it went to the Council, through the addition of strong definitions that precluded the possibility of prioritizing specific services over others. Where the final compromise will lie remains a mystery for now.

Web inventor warns against zero-rating net neutrality threat

Zero-rating – where carriers charge nothing or very little for the data used by specific apps and web services – is a threat to net neutrality, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has warned.

The practice is becoming very popular, with mobile operators in particular making special offers that exempt services such as [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Spotify[/company] from customers’ normal data caps. This steers users to those specific services and harms their rivals, whose traffic becomes much more expensive to the user.

Berners-Lee slammed zero-rating on Tuesday in a guest post on the blog of EU digital single market commissioner Andrus Ansip, who is a staunch supporter of net neutrality and is currently trying to get EU member states to agree to the strong net neutrality rules voted through by the European Parliament last year.

However, those rules don’t call out zero-rating, also known as positive price discrimination, as a net neutrality violation. The European Commission has also so far held back from defining it as such.

Here’s what the web pioneer wrote in his pro-net-neutrality piece:

Of course, [net neutrality] is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers — able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day.

I asked Ansip’s office whether he agreed with Berners-Lee’s views, and was told that, although the guest posts don’t reflect official Commission positions, Ansip considers the post to be “an important contribution to the debate on net neutrality.”

As things stand, the Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union – the body that represents the government of member states – is busy working out its position on the EU’s almost-concluded Telecoms Single Market Regulation, which includes the new net neutrality laws.

Under the Council’s previous Italian presidency, leaks suggested that the member states were going to dilute the net neutrality provisions by making them aspirational rather than set in stone. However, the Commission and Parliament both pushed back hard, and negotiations are ongoing.

The Council indicated in January that, although some member states were keen on banning zero-rating, opposition from other member states meant there wasn’t enough support to insert an explicit clause about this into the new regulation.

In the meantime, countries such as the Netherlands, Slovenia and Norway have pushed ahead with national bans on zero-rating. Outside Europe, Chile and Canada have done the same.

If anyone wants to hassle the Latvian presidency of the Council about the need for strong net neutrality rules, Berners-Lee supplied a handy pre-written tweet. It might also be worth reminding them that the U.S. looks set to embrace strong net neutrality – ironically, a year ago the old Commission was taunting the U.S. for dithering on net neutrality when Europe was preparing to take a firm stance.

Dutch and Slovenian regulators nail carriers over net neutrality

While the European Union dithers over EU-wide net neutrality, some European countries are marching on regardless. On Friday Slovenia’s regulators nailed carriers Telekom Slovenije and Si.mobil for violating net neutrality principles, and on Tuesday Dutch regulators fined KPN and Vodafone for similar violations.

The latest ruling, by the Dutch consumer protection agency ACM, saw [company]KPN[/company] fined €250,000 ($283,000) and [company]Vodafone[/company] €200,000. KPN was caught for blocking some VoIP services on its free Wi-Fi hotspots, and Vodafone was zero-rating the [company]HBO[/company] Go app – that is, it was providing free traffic for that service in particular, a practise technically known as “positive price discrimination”.

ACM’s statement read in part:

In addition to the ban on blocking, internet providers may also not charge differing tariffs for the use of services and applications on the internet. This contributes to an open internet. An open internet is important for freely disseminating information and increasing choice on the internet.

The Slovenian ruling was also about zero-rating: [company]Telekom Slovenije[/company] has been providing free data for the music streamer [company]Deezer[/company], and [company]Si.mobil[/company] for cloud storage service [company]Hanger Mapa[/company]. Those carriers now have two months to stop breaking the rules.

The European Parliament voted for strong net neutrality rules in April 2014, but since then the legislative process has stalled, largely due to some member states demanding vague principles rather than strictly-defined terms. The European Commission is dead set against this development, so it and the Council of the European Union, which represents the states, are currently negotiating a compromise.

However, even if that legislation’s strong definitions survive, it doesn’t ban zero-rating, which some argue is not a net neutrality issue because users can still access services other than those being zero-rated, even if it means using up their data allowance.

Those who argue that it is a net neutrality issue maintain that it violates the principles because it favors particular services and apps over others. That includes regulators in the Netherlands, Slovenia, Norway (not part of the EU but part of the European Economic Area, where EU net neutrality legislation would apply), and Chile (definitely nowhere near the EU.)

Last week the Latvian Presidency of the Council indicated that proposals to include an explicit ban on zero-rating in the EU-wide net neutrality legislation would not gain enough support among the states. Some had also suggested making selective blocking a self-regulatory matter, but those proposals seem to be sunk as they would conflict with existing EU legislation and fundamental rights.

In other words, the current situation – where zero-rating is banned in some European countries but not others – looks set to continue into the foreseeable future, whether or not a broader ban on blocking and throttling comes into force.

EU digital chief tries to maintain single digital market momentum

European member states may be keen to water down current net neutrality proposals and push back against the centralization of radio spectrum policy in the EU, but new digital single market chief Andrus Ansip isn’t having any of it. In a speech on Monday, he adopted a tough stance on these issues, and on the abolition of roaming fees for those travelling within the EU. Ansip also told the member states to hurry up so the proposals can be become reality.

Ansip told telecoms providers at the GSMA Mobile 360 conference in Brussels that the concept of net neutrality “has to be solid and clearly defined.” Member states are more keen on unenforceable principles that can be interpreted differently in different countries, but Ansip noted that “if 28 countries have 28 different approaches, it makes the market even more fragmented.”

On spectrum, member states are trying to stop the Commission gathering any more powers of coordination. Ansip argued: “The more this natural resource is divided, the less efficient it is. Ideally, EU countries should be working together much more on allocating spectrum. After all, radio waves know no borders. Why should the internet? We don’t need national fragmentation of internet traffic.”

Ansip said roaming fees for travel between EU countries were “an irritant and an anomaly”. He said he “will continue to push for an end to roaming surcharges in Europe” because “they have no place in the telecoms and digital single markets that Europe so badly needs.” Member states want to see “fair use” policies inserted into current legislative proposals for allowing people to use roaming data within their domestic tariffs.

The Council of the EU, representing the member states’ governments, represents the last hurdle in the European legislative process. The debate over the Telecoms Package, proposed by Ansip’s predecessor, Neelie Kroes, is now heading into the new year. Ansip said he hoped an agreement could be reached within months. “Otherwise, I fear that we may lose momentum,” he said.

So far, the Council hasn’t even begun negotiations with the European Parliament over the package, as it must. Ansip pointed out that the Council itself had pushed for a single EU telecoms market, and suggested that the telcos should also be keen to see this creation because would aid cross-border consolidation and allow them to offer services across the EU.

“It is up to those in the market to invest in the necessary infrastructure. However, the market cannot always provide all that is needed. That’s where public authorities have a role to play,” he said. “Firstly, by providing the right and adequate regulatory environment, which we plan to achieve through the Digital Single Market strategy. And secondly, by incentivizing and leveraging more private investment.”

A single telecoms market is of course a necessary base for a single digital market. Beyond what Kroes had already proposed regarding telecoms, Ansip called for simplified rules on online purchases, an end to the geo-blocking of digital services, and the reform of Europe’s copyright rules.

SaveTheInternet.eu campaign begs EU states to back net neutrality

A “SaveTheInternet.eu” coalition of civil society groups has sent a letter to the Council of the EU, which is finalizing the European Union’s new net neutrality rules, urging it not to water them down. Recent leaks suggested this will happen, after years of work to toughen the rules up, alarming EU digital chief Andrus Ansip and digital rights activists alike. The coalition argued that, without meaningful net neutrality rules, large ISPs will become gatekeepers choosing which services get to run in fast and slow lanes, and the economy and human rights will suffer as a result. Citizens are being urged to contact their representatives in the Council, which represents the 28 EU member states, ahead of its Thursday debate on the matter.