March 30, 2014

EU lawmakers prepare to vote on ‘net neutrality’

Consumer advocacy groups, meanwhile, say their main concern is that the new rules would make Internet access unaffordable for many Europeans.

Vodafone gave Chris Herbert a package deal he found too tempting to turn down.

To persuade Herbert, a 27-year-old conference organizer, to pay 50 percent more for his monthly cellphone contract, the British telecom giant threw in a free subscription to Spotify, the music streaming service.

The bundled deal, giving Herbert access to both a high-speed digital network and consumer content, is the type of packaging at the core of a raging public policy debate in Europe over what types of services will be widely available and how much they will cost.

The online habits of customers like Herbert, and their ability to pay, are the focus of digital policy legislation on which lawmakers from the European Union’s 28 member countries plan to vote Thursday in Brussels. A key part of the legislation is net neutrality. The rules are meant to ensure equitable access to the Internet’s pipelines for services like streaming music, on-demand television and cloud computing. The big questions are who pays for them and how much.

The proposed rules have drawn furious lobbying from telecommunications companies like Vodafone, Internet giants like Google and smaller players like Spotify and advocacy groups on behalf of the EU’s 500 million consumers.

Battle over bandwidth

The battle is akin to a struggle playing out in the United States but with its own European twists.

The outcome could help determine whether the financial incentives are in place to pay for the multibillion-euro investments needed to upgrade Europe’s patchy mobile and landline Internet infrastructure, which in the absence of Continent-wide rules has slipped ever further behind the more advanced data networks of North America and Asia.

Even if the full parliament adopts the legislation this week – passage is no sure bet – further wrangling among member countries over how to implement the law would be expected to drag on for months.

The wrangling has pitted some of the biggest companies in Europe against one another.

The telecom carriers want to charge content providers like Google, with its YouTube video service, higher rates for premium, high-speed access to the Internet. The carriers say such extra costs are necessary because of the amount of network capacity – or bandwidth – such services require.

The legislation provides some pricing leeway in that regard. But the carriers say the flexibility is not sufficient, while content providers counter that any premiums at all would be unreasonable. Although the richest players, like Google and the on-demand service Netflix, might be able to afford premium access, some midsize or smaller players worry that they could be priced out of the Internet fast lines and relegated to network side roads.

Who should control the Internet?

Consumer advocacy groups, meanwhile, say their main concern is that the new rules would make Internet access unaffordable for many Europeans. And they warn that the network economics could end up favoring U.S. juggernauts like Google, Netflix or Amazon, to the detriment of providers of European content and services.

The vote “will either mark an unprecedented advance toward the protection of our fundamental rights, or mark the final days of the open Internet as we know it,” said Félix Tréguer, co-founder of the La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group in Paris.

Representatives for Google and Microsoft, like many of the other big U.S. companies, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the debate.

A similar debate continues in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission is still trying to map out net neutrality rules after two of the biggest U.S. providers of broadband access, Verizon and Comcast, successfully challenged the commission in court.

“Net neutrality is starting to bleed into a bigger debate about whether the Internet has become a public utility,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University in New York who coined the phrase net neutrality in the early 2000s. “It has become about who controls access to online content.”

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