The internet is a global network. That means if one part of the world decides to start pulling the wrong levers, we could be dealing with the consequences. And the European parliament just pulled a very big lever by voting down amendments to net neutrality rules that include dangerous loopholes.
The European Union’s net neutrality rules are wrapped in a bundle of seemingly well-intentioned regulations that will do good things like ban roaming charges. However, the net neutrality debate ended up siding with the interest of big telecom companies. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) today voted in favor of the new rules—and all of the awful loopholes they allow. The saddest part of the whole ordeal is that only 50 MEPs out of 751 bothered to show up for the debate.
Now about those loopholes. What makes them so worrisome is the simple fact that they’ll allow exceptions to the principle of net neutrality, which folks like world wide web inventor Tim Berners Lee insist is the best way to preserve a free and open internet. The Guardian explains the various loopholes concisely:
Among the exceptions opposed by net neutrality supporters is one which allows providers to offer priority to “specialised services”, providing they still treat the “open” internet equally. Many had seen the exception as allowing providers to offer an internet fast lane to paying sites, leading to the Italian government to propose removing the exception from the draft regulations.
So fast lanes are okay as long as the rest of the internet is open. That’s like saying assault is okay as long as you’re not violent most of the time. What other crazy ideas are in this hugely important piece of legislation? Here’s the Guardian again:
A different exception is aimed at situations where the limitation is not speed, but data usage. The EU’s regulations allow “zero rating”, a practice whereby certain sites or applications are not counted against data limits. That gives those sites a specific advantage when dealing with users with strict data caps such as those on mobile internet. The new regulations allow national regulators to decide whether or not to allow zero rating in their own country.
This is a lot like Mark Zuckerberg secretly sinister plan to create an internet for poor people: Internet.org. So Facebook could pay lobbyists to convince the government of a European nation to give it a zero rating. It’s been clear for a while that Zuck and company don’t understand net neutrality. Now it’s obvious that lawmakers in Europe don’t get it either.
The Guardian saved the best exception for last:
Other exceptions include an allowance for ISPs to predict periods of peak demand and introduce “reasonable traffic management measures”, and to group some services into traffic “classes”, which can be sped up or slowed down at will.
In other words, just go ahead and create a caste system for internet traffic. That kind of approach has worked great for Europeans in the past.
It’s easy to feel like these rules don’t matter for non-Europeans. It will take at least six months for each EU country to begin adopting the new rules, and even then, it’s safe to say that different leaders will interpret the new regulations differently. Nevertheless, once it’s all in place there will be reverberations throughout the world.
It seems likely that anti-net neutrality lawmakers in the United States and other countries will be able to use Europe’s disregard for the free internet as a precedent to argue for their own misguided rules. The good news is that the United States has a good plan to build a better internet. God knows we need it.
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