In the middle of the night negotiators of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission finally agreed on the Connected Continent package. The end result is a resounding disappointment for proponents of a free and open internet, since the deal ends netneutrality protection in the EU.
Many proponents of a free and open internet fear that with the loss of the principle of netneutrality, telecom providers will be in a position to become gatekeepers of the internet. The European Commission in its communications today tries to suggest that the new rules will be in fact the strongest in the world. This is simply untrue. Not only will the new rules replace much stronger protections in the Netherlands and Slovenia, it also falls well short of protections in the United States and Chile.
The two main issues with the new proposals, that will have to be confirmed both by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, are the exception for specialised services and the room given to zerorating.
Specialised services are defined in the proposal extremely broadly, so that almost anything applies. The main condition the deal sets is that a specialised service should not infringe on the general quality of the internet. That is not saying much. Internet bandwidth has grown exponentially every year for the last decade or two. Still, new services have come along to use the extra bandwidth. Telecom providers will easily accommodate the current bandwidth going forward, but could use all new bandwidth for specialised services.
Zerorating has in many countries already become common practice. Listening to Spotify or Apple Music stream music direct to your device. Over mobile networks, that eats through your monthly gigabytes like mice through Dutch cheese. It's great for consumers not to have to pay for the extra bandwidth. But it's not so great if you want to switch music service providers. Your choice of carrier will dictate your choice of music provider. And it will not end there. More and more services will be tied to your internet service provider. Dropbox. Facebook. Anything. Under such circumstances, switching providers becomes very hard for most customers. Suddenly zerorating doesn't look so attractive anymore.
Eurocommissioner Oettinger, responsible for the digital economy recently called netneutrality a "Taliban-like issue". He meant to say that some people were too extreme and unwilling to compromise on the subject. He is right. Some issues are dichotomous and don't lend themselves to compromise. Netneutrality is such a subject. Either you have it, or you don't. You cannot slice or dice netneutrality. Some subjects are like that. Every deviation from the real thing introduces huge loopholes and side effects.
It is not too late yet. Both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will have to vote on the deal. The Dutch government was quick to announce its opposition to the deal. Other governments might follow. But chances are there will be a majority to support the end of netneutrality.
In Parliament, things will be different. The strong wording of the Parliament's position last year went against the wishes of the Parliament's rapporteur, conservative Pilar del Castillo from Spain, who is now the chief negotiator for the parliament. Her position against netneutrality in Parliament was rejected by a good proportion of MEPs from her own party. It is as yet unclear how that will play out. Certainly, many MEPs will be uncomfortable with the deal — but will they vote against the end of roaming to stop it?
If sufficient pressure is generated in the coming days and weeks, by the public, the press and NGO's, they very well might. If not, the development of the open internet in the EU will be controlled by the main internet providers. And the future of the digital economy will suffer for it.