Web giants, Sir Tim slam Europe's net neutrality rules on eve of vote

Four loopholes spark alarm

Netflix, Reddit, Tumblr, Kickstarter and other tech companies, as well as the creator of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, are urging European politicians not to vote in favor of net neutrality regulations on Tuesday.

Both have sent letters highlighting a number of "loopholes" that have been introduced as the legislation has progressed through the different European bodies, which could undermine the original intent of the law.

"The proposed regulations are weak and confusing," warned Berners-Lee in a blog post. "To keep Europe innovative and competitive, it is essential that MEPs adopt amendments for stronger 'network neutrality.'"

Meanwhile the letter [PDF] from 34 tech companies and VCs noted: "Unfortunately, the proposal before the Parliament contains four major problems that undermine network neutrality and threaten to undermine the EU technology industry."

Both letters argue that the amendments introduced make the rules weaker than the US-equivalent Open Internet Order, passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year.

Those four loopholes are:

  • Fast lanes: A "specialized services" exception is too broadly defined, critics argued. The amendment was introduced for critical services such as remote medical procedures, but the current wording could allow ISPs to fit all sorts of other services into it, effectively creating a "two tier" internet. They want the wording tightened or removed.
  • Zero-rating: This would let ISPs select services that do not count against their customers' monthly bandwidth limits and so potentially distort the market and limit innovation. The obvious incentive of a service not counting against bandwidth limits would be to limit competition, critics argue. They want the wording pulled out or a provision added that would ban any zero-rating that was anti-competitive.
  • Class-based throttling: Currently the rules would allow ISPs to define certain classes or content and speed up or slow down traffic in those classes. Critics argue that not only would this almost guarantee the slower transfer of encrypted traffic (since it can't be read and hence classed), but it would be used to limit competition. All traffic should be treated equally and the rules changed to reflect that, they argue.
  • Network congestion: ISPs would be allowed to slow traffic down in order to prevent "impending congestion." But the term "impending" is too subjective, critics say, and leaves the door open for ISPs to slow traffic at any time claiming that they expect congestion soon. They want the wording pulled out.

The counter-attack to the revised rules has come on the eve of the vote in the European Parliament. There are already a number of amendments proposed by the MEPs that are due to be considered and which campaigners appear to feel would resolve their concerns.

The coordinated effort to flag up concerns on the eve of the vote is an effort to get politicians to approve those amendments before approving the rules. Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick has also produced an extensive rundown of why she feels the changes need to be made.

Among those opposed to the rules as currently drafted are Economic Affairs minister Henk Kamp and Digital Single Market commissioner Andrus Ansip. Driving opposition to the measures is MEP Marietje Schaake. Although even Schaake noted that the changes made during the process were the result of member state governments.

The proposals were first introduced in 2013 but have been delayed a number of times. The European Council, made up of ministers from European countries, eventually reached a compromise with Parliament representatives and released it at the end of June, formally adopting it last month.

If MEPs approve that compromise on Tuesday, it will quickly become law across Europe and also override a number of net neutrality regulations that individual countries have approved by themselves in recent years.

"If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech, and privacy, and compromise Europe's ability to lead in the digital economy," warned Tim Berners-Lee. ®

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