Net Neutrality & Why It Matters In The EU

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Tomorrow morning, on the 27th October, the European Parliament will vote on the Telecom Single Market regulation text, which includes a part on Net Neutrality. Why should you care? An overview of what’s at stake seen from Slovenia, one of the strongest defenders of net neutrality in the world, and why it matters to both small businesses and startups.

Though it’s already been the subject of heated political debates and mobilisation in IT circles for a couple of years, Net Neutrality is still a rather obscure term to most Europeans. Yet, not protecting it would mean juicy deals for the big players in the telecommunication (telco) industry and, basically, the end of internet as we know it.

What Is Net Neutrality?

Here are the fundamentals. Net Neutrality ensures that all data packets are treated equally. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot block certain data packets or slow them down, ensuring that all content and applications can be accessed. That part is mostly covered in the new EU regulation, whose final version will be voted tomorrow on. If approved, it would then immediately enter into force in all 28 member states.

Now, the second part of net neutrality has to do with content and prices an ISP would offer. So far, all websites are accessible at the same speed for the same price and no particular website or application is favoured. Then comes Zero Rating, a practice through which ISP and mobile carriers in particular, can offer free access to specific online content or services, to the detriment of others.

Proponents argue that zero rating can then serve as a tool for granting internet access to low-income communities and can be used in a positive way. Wikipedia Zero in Nepal is a prime example. However, such practice not only distorts the market and gives more power to the telcos, but also hampers the user’s free choice and freedom of speech. Thus, it would challenge the core principles of Net Neutrality.

”With zero rating, the telco basically becomes a gatekeeper and gets to decide which services they prefer, usually the ones which bring them more money,” explained Matic Bitenc, a member of the Slovenian Council for Electronic Communications (SEK). “So competition suffers, user experience suffers and in the end not the users,” he continued.

Why It Matters To Startups – And To Everybody Else

Entrepreneurs and small business owners rely heavily on the internet to launch and operate their businesses online. Ensuring Net Neutrality is therefore essential to supporting innovation and the development of SMEs. Without it, ISPs will be allowed to charge companies for faster traffic and that will create a two-speed Internet, while zero rating will simultaneously hinder competition. There will no longer be a level playing field, which would make it a lot more difficult for startups to get ahead.

“Imagine that the explosion of new, better, cheaper services, that we’ve been seeing in the last decades suddenly stops: that’s what happens when Net Neutrality falls, said Rok Andrée, Secretary of Piratska Stranka Slovenije, Slovenia’s Pirate Party.
“It becomes much harder for startups to compete with the already established big names, because they either can’t pay for a good enough connection to users or are denied access outright by internet providers” he added.

A Decisive Vote

Europe has many startup clusters, making it a hotbed of entrepreneurship. Such regulation applied to all member states would pose a threat to local content development and stifle overall innovation.
Thanks to the important mobilisation of European citizens, a draft version with a series of provisions in favour of Net Neutrality was voted on by MEPs in April 2014. An informal deal including net neutrality – the so-called telecom package- was reached last June. However, due to poorly defined terms, the regulation still has some loopholes allowing zero rating practice. It was also undermined with the “specialised services” clause, which would allow operators to provide their partners with faster traffic for their services and applications.

“Slovenia has banned both types of discrimination, so our legislation is way better, but this EU regulation would ruin it,” Bitenc said.

A member state with only 2 million inhabitants, Slovenia has been very active in the political debate at the EU level. The tiny country indeed has enshrined internet neutrality into law, as stated in the article #203 of Law on Electronic Communications. “In that respect we have one of the most advanced legislations, as only Slovenia and The Netherlands guarantee Net neutrality to this extent in the EU” he added. Slovenian MPs, who’ve opposed the regulation before, as well as members of the SEK and of the Pirate Party express great concerns over the outcome of the final vote.

The new rules will be voted on during the plenary session in Strasbourg tomorrow morning. Several amendments ensuring Net neutrality will be submitted and will determine the future of Internet in Europe.



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