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Net neutrality: EU's three-headed beast now at war with itself

Political bodies nowhere near a final decision

Europe’s telecoms ministers are miles from an agreement with the European Parliament on net neutrality, as differences between the EU's governmental bodies become more apparent.

The EU’s Telecommunications Council - made up of national ministers - will meet in Brussels tomorrow to discuss how to move forward on the proposed telecoms reforms package.

The law, pushed by ex-digi tsar Steelie Neelie Kroes, is a sprawling piece of legislation covering telecoms companies regulation, coordination of the use of radio spectrum, and harmonised rights of end-users. However, Thursday’s Council will only focus on roaming charges and net neutrality.

The plan was to phase out mobile roaming charges as soon as possible, but according to Council sources, national ministers are asking for more time to access the economic impact of doing so. The European Parliament is keen to finalise the law, but negotiations are difficult and there are still huge differences between the two governmental bodies.

Nor are the two any closer to an agreement on net neutrality. The draft of the law that was passed by the Parliament in April significantly strengthened net neutrality rules, but a leaked document earlier this week showed that the Council is going in the opposite direction.

Council sources said national ministers are keen to pursue a “principles-based” approach that will not introduce “obstacles to innovation and investment” and would be “more future-proof” than the definitions laid out by Parliament.

The Council proposal removes the definition of net neutrality, to the ire of digital rights groups, 16 of whom (including OpenForum Europe, La Quadrature du Net, Chaos Computer Club, Net Users' Rights Protection Association and Access) have written to the Council to urge it to change its position.

“The Italian Presidency [of the Council] gives way to the industrial lobbies' interests and ignores the massive citizen mobilisation which has taken place. Jeopardising net neutrality means infringing the fundamental rights and freedoms of every single European citizen,” said the groups.

However, the Council and the Parliament are but two parts of the three-headed beast that makes EU law. The European Commission may yet decide to throw away the draft law altogether and start from scratch.

Council sources pointed out that despite mutterings from the Commish, it has not formally indicated it would do so.

Gunther H-dot Oettinger is due to speak to the Council tomorrow and may give away some more clues as to the intentions of the Commish, although full disclosure of the way forward is not expected before the end of the year. ®

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