European Parliament votes to bar internet service providers from blocking or slowing down services offered by competitors

Out-Law News | 04 Apr 2014 | 2:54 pm | 3 min. read

The European Parliament has voted in favour of proposals which would bar internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing down services which are provided by their competitors, in a move designed to boost "net neutrality" across the European Union.

MEPs also voted in favour of proposals which will ban mobile telephone roaming charges in Europe by 15 December 2015, apart from in "exceptional cases" to be set out by the European Commission.

EU telecoms commissioner Neelie Kroes said the proposals, which must yet be approved by Council of Europe member states before becoming law, would benefit consumers across the EU.

This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," said Kroes, according to the Financial Times.  "This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive. I am so pleased that we are now just one step from ending roaming charges and delivering net neutrality for all Europeans.”

Telecoms operators expressed concern at the decision, which they said would hinder the development of the EU digital economy.

Luigi Gambardella, chairman of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (Etno), said the measures would create "a dangerous situation, in which the European digital economy will suffer and EU businesses will be put in a difficult competitive situation with respect to other regions of the world."

Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs will deliver all content requested by a customer equally, not allowing content producers to have preferential access to subscribers. The European Commission proposed moves to boost net neutrality in Europe amid concerns that ISPs were blocking or slowing down services provided by their competitors. EU telecoms regulator BEREC has found that several internet access providers were blocking or slowing down services such as “Skype”, which is used to make phone calls over the internet. The Commission estimates that about 100 million people across the EU have suffered restrictions on internet usage as a result of such practices.

Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "This vote is really important as the European MPs have taken a very strong stand in favour of consumers, with roaming charges to be abolished by December 2015 and the net neutrality principle being reinforced, as the operators will have to provide equal internet access, regardless of the origin, the services, the sender or the recipient. This vote is not really good news for operators. Orange was actually saying that jobs could be at stake if the vote was passed."

A statement issued by the European Parliament after the vote said: "MEPs underline that internet access should be provided in accordance with the principle of net neutrality, which means that all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, recipient, type, content, device, service or application."

Under the proposals, ISPs would still be able to offer specialized services of higher quality, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive “cloud” data storage applications, so long as these services are not supplied "to the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access services" offered to other companies or service suppliers.

But MEPs shortened the European Commission's proposed list of “exceptional cases" in which internet access providers could still be allowed to block or slow down the internet. MEPs say these practices should be permitted only to enforce a court order, preserve network security or prevent temporary network congestion. If such "traffic management measures" are used, they must be "transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate" and "not be maintained longer than necessary," said the MEPs.

Etno said the telecoms reforms would "result in an excessive burden for the EU telecoms sector." Gambardella added: “Today’s vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent Regulation, namely a strong European digital industry igniting growth and jobs creation. We are confident that the upcoming work of the EU decision makers will acknowledge such risk and will embrace the spirit of the Commission’s original proposal, confirming that the EU seeks solutions for growth, and not populist measures”.

A statement by GSMA, which represents almost 800 mobile operators worldwide, said the proposed reforms do not address issues of stimulating growth and investment.

"Europe’s telecoms operators are facing decreasing revenues and reduced market values compared with operators in the U.S. and Asia, as well as players across the broader mobile ecosystem," the GSMA said. "This is impairing their ability to invest in the infrastructure required to put Europe back on the path to growth and jobs and to restore its global competitiveness. The GSMA shares the European Commission’s view that a competitive telecommunications single market can help meet this challenge, but a more thorough and comprehensive approach is required to support this goal."