A Mixed Win For Net-Neutrality in European Union

Michael From our Perspective

Just like many kids’ bags this weekend after trick-or-treating, with the net-neutrality vote the European Parliament delivered a varied assortment of ‘treats.’ Ultimately, the score was less than satisfactory. The European Parliament passed a weak bill troubled with loopholes that is already opening the doors to exploitation.

Following America’s lead, the European Parliament voted on a net-neutrality bill on October 27. The bill was meant to provide a few essential protections for all of the European Union member states. The biggest components of the bill was a safeguard against internet fast lanes, zero-rating policy, and the removal of roaming charges within the European Union. However, it seems that the new law will fall short on all of those endeavors.

Zero-Rating, and Roaming

Doing away with roaming charges seems to have caught the most attention with the public and most of the MEPs (Members of English Parliament) in the net-neutrality regulations. This has been seen by many as a big sacrifice of the service providers in order to reach a compromise on the issue of net neturality. However, even this ‘sacrifice,’ when inspected, turns out to be very weak.

The wording of the bill leaves quite a bit of wiggle room for the service providers. First, no changes will be made until a full report has been issued on pricing and consumption standards. This report’s deadline is isn’t until mid 2017. And even after the report is finished a full abolition of roaming charges won’t happen. What’s expected is that the European Parliament will give users some amount of ‘fair use’ roaming, after which the telecoms will be able to charge customers and “continue to hinder the breaking down of barriers within Europe.”

Zero-rating is another hot ticket item with the potential to show favoritism and make it harder for some companies, like startups or those with little capital, to break into the market. Zero-rating is the tendency of some service providers to make the use of some apps not count towards the users data cap. Here again, the EU makes a step in the right direction but stops short of banning the harmful tactic.

As the regulation goes now, it’s perfectly legal for an ISP to count all of it’s competitors video services against a user’s data cap while exempting its own services from being counted. Telecoms, could then force payment from companies who want a zero-rating, creating an unfair market advantage for larger or better funded companies.

The EU’s Version of Net-Neutrality Leaves Much to be Desired

The real supposed champion of the regulation that passed is net-neutrality. Zero-rating and roaming charges was seen as a sacrifice so that ISPs could get a better deal on regulations on net-neutrality. And, boy did they get a good deal.

Although the law prohibits the creation of an internet ‘fast lane’ it does make an exception for ‘specialized services.’ Examples given are Internet Protocal Television (IPTV), high-definition videoconferencing, and health care services such as telesurgery. But unlike the US regulations, these ‘specialized services’ do not need to be handled on a separate internet access service. Instead the regulation states that EU ISPs must provide enough capacity on the same broadband so specialty services do not impede regular internet access.

Unfortunately, with such a broad definition given to ‘specialized services’ ISPs can claim almost anything as such.

Yet another potential pitfall with the regulation is the potential for throttling, especially those using a VPN. The regulation tells ISPs to “treat all traffic equally,” and allows them to ‘reasonably manage traffic’ based upon the “different technical quality of service requirements of specific categories of traffic.”

This net-neutrality wording spells trouble for VPNs. The broad manner in which it is written allows the ISPs to create different ‘classes’ of internet traffic. If the companies come to the conclusion (which they will) that throttling certain kinds of traffic, like peer to peer (P2P) file sharing or online gaming will improve transmission quality then they are allowed to do that.

As Barbara van Schewick, a Professor of Law and Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, points out, “This is a real problem for P2P applications. ISPs regularly throttle or otherwise interfere with peer-to-peer file-sharing applications to manage congestion if they are not prevented from doing so by network neutrality rules.”

The problem (besides an ISP being able to decide to throttle any kind of internet traffic) is their lack of ability to perform deep packet inspection on encrypted traffic. This means that because they can’t classify what kind of traffic is being conducted while a user is on a VPN service, they will throttle encrypted traffic uniformly.

Van Schewick continues, “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.”

All in All

Ultimately, the net-neutrality regulation allows the exact things that it’s aimed at prohibiting. Loopholes manufactured by generalized wording, amendments that would have significantly helped strengthen it failing to pass, and hollow ‘sacrifices’ that aren’t much sacrifice at all for the telecom/ISPs all make the net-neutrality regulation nearly moot. To top it off, some countries, like the Netherlands, that already had strongly worded net-neutrality and zero-rating laws were significantly weakened.

But perhaps I’m being too negative, we simply can’t expect giant leaps of progress against massive corporations. On the bright side, many EU nations had no laws at all regarding these topics. This regulation at least creates a blanket protection, however weak. These net-neutrality regulations should not been seen as an end all for the cause, but a stepping stone toward a truly neutral Internet.

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