On Tuesday, the European Parliament voted in new rules aimed at enshrining net neutrality. Thanks to it rejecting a number of amendments aimed at closing important loopholes, however, critics (such as World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee) have branded the legislation “weak and confusing”.
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic be treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments, “not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication,” and for the last twenty years it has been a cornerstone of innovation and free expression on the internet.
Until now there have been no EU-wide laws protecting net neutrality, although some member states have introduced their own local legislation. The European Parliament, therefore, hailed Tuesday’s vote as a victory for net neutrality (and therefore ordinary EU internet users,)
“Common rules on net neutrality mean that internet access providers cannot pick winners or losers on the internet, or decide which content and services are available. They mean that the freedom of Europeans to access or distribute internet content will not depend on the country where they are resident. This will increase consumer choice and competition, and strengthen the Digital Single Market.”
However… open internet activists were very worried about aspects of the legislation that could be open to abuse by ISPs and content providers, and had pushed for four crucial amendments to address these. As a group of high profile technology firms, that includes the likes of Etsy, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Reddit and Foursquare, argued in an open letter,
“Unfortunately, the proposal before the Parliament contains four major problems that undermine network neutrality and threaten to undermine the EU technology industry… These problems jeopardize the future of the startup innovation and economic growth in the EU. They also create barriers for U.S. startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market. We believe that the future of the open Internet in Europe is at stake and urgent action is warranted.”
The four areas of concern are:
- Fast lanes – the new rules insist on treating all internet traffic as equal except for “specialised services”, which can be prioritized. The final draft envisions these “specialised services” as being limited to uses such as driverless cars, remote surgery, or when dealing with terrorist attacks, but critics argue that the wording is too vague, and opens up the potential for some companies to pay for “fast lane” priority access to the internet. This means that Europeans may have to pay more to access certain websites, and that smaller businesses that cannot afford to pay for priority access will be unable to compete with those who can.
- Zero rating – this is the practice of ISPs exempting some internet services from their regular data caps, and creates the same harm as introducing fast lanes. Facebook’s controversial Internet.org project is a good example of zero rating in practice.
- “Classes” of service – the new rules allow ISPs to group services into “classes” that can be prioritized or discriminated against (even in the absence of network congestion.) Critics are particularly concerned that this will discourage the use of encryption, as ISPs can group all encrypted traffic (such as VPN traffic) into one “class”, which can then put into a “slow lane”.
- “Impending” congestion management – allows ISPs to slow down traffic on a highly subjective basis when they think congestion is “impending” (rather than just when actually is congested.)
Amendments were proposed to fix these rather wide loopholes in advance of Tuesday’s vote, but were rejected. This means that the new law falls short of (and will undermine) the more robust local net neutrality laws passed by countries such as the Netherlands, Slovenia and Finland. Mike Weston, the chief executive of data science consultancy Profusion told the Guardian,
“The EU’s vote opens the door to an end to net neutrality in Europe that could severely damage tech companies and consumers. For most tech companies, an end to net neutrality is potentially a disaster. By seeking to ascribe different values to data and, potentially charging accordingly, it will be more expensive for many tech companies to operate.”
Of particular concern to us here at BestVPN is that the law gives ISPs the ability to discriminate against VPN traffic. Thanks to intense pressure from copyright holders, ISP’s regularly slow down or otherwise interfere with P2P traffic, and because many P2P downloaders hide their activity from ISPs using VPN encryption, it is very possible that ISPs may simply choose to deprioritize all VPN traffic.
“Encryption makes it impossible to identify the type of application, so ISPs who implement that kind of traffic management have generally put encrypted traffic in the slow lane. Even if an ISP wasn’t specifically targeting P2P file-sharing applications, this would hurt all P2P applications that encrypt their traffic.”
We hope this proves not to be the case, and that consumer demand in Europe’s choice-heavy internet service market will ensure ISP’s adhere to the principles of net neutrality, rather than to the letter of the (rather crap) law. But we shall see…