The many uses we now have for the internet are vastly different from those intended, or even imagined by its inventors, the most notable of these being the increasing popularity of video streaming.
Maintaining an efficient and rapid flow of data to meet demand is an expensive process and the cost is falling on the shoulders of internet service providers, or ‘ISPs’. For them, a two-tier internet could make more sense. This would see producers charged a fee for getting certain types of their data delivered more promptly. For big video streaming sites this could mean extra costs and could also see internet traffic being prioritised depending on its content and the creation of ‘fast lanes’ and ‘slow lanes’. There is also the issue of ‘zero ratings’ in which some services can be accessed without using up any of the internet user's data quota. An example of this is in Belgium where some mobile phone companies don’t include access to Twitter and Facebook in data usage. In the Netherlands this is not allowed.
‘Net neutrality’ is the principle that internet service providers should treat all online content equally without blocking or slowing down specific websites on purpose or allowing companies to pay for preferential treatment, and that this should be the case across the whole of the EU’s 28 member states.
At this month’s European Parliament Plenary an important vote took place on an agreement that incorporates this principle and marks the end of a long battle that Labour MEPs started many years ago. Significantly it means an end to EU roaming charges and the breaking down of artificial borders for mobile communications inside the EU. It is called the Telecom Single Market Regulation (TSM). Following this vote, from June 2017, people travelling in the EU will enjoy the huge benefit of not having to pay additional roaming charges for using their mobile phones.
Also included within this legislation is ‘net neutrality’ – regulations designed to ensure that all internet traffic be treated equally by all networks.
There are however exceptions. One is to allow providers to offer specialised uses like remote surgery, driverless cars and the prevention of terrorist attacks, but this must not be at the risk of restricting bandwidth for normal internet users. Another is the ability for individual member states to decide whether or not to allow zero rating in their own country.
The agreement is a result of long negotiations and debates with the national governments. Although Labour MEPs were not entirely happy with the exceptions, without them the deal reached with national governments would have fallen - meaning no net neutrality, no end to roaming charges and no ban on two-speed internet.
National regulators are responsible for overseeing the implementation of the rules and are expected to start enforcement in six months. With this new EU law, all European countries will now have to incorporate rules on net neutrality and the freedom and the right of European citizens to access or distribute Internet into their national legislation.