The open character of the Internet, or “Net Neutrality”, is like water or electricity in the digital age. It is the principle that “all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application” according to a new definition voted by the European Parliament today.
As the Parliament explained, safeguarding net neutrality is essential because “the internet’s open character has been a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, social development and innovation – which has led to spectacular levels of development in online applications, content and services – and thus of growth in the offer of, and demand for, content and services, and has made it a vitally important accelerator in the free circulation of knowledge, ideas and information, including in countries where access to independent media is limited”.
Yet, for too long, the use of apps like Skype has been unduly restricted and discriminated against for millions of consumers across Europe, stifling innovation and benefits for end-users. Already we saw these bad practices spreading to other uses of the Internet, such as cloud and music. This had to stop.
So, after years of advocacy at Skype and at Microsoft for a user-driven, open Internet ecosystem, we are glad to welcome today’s plenary vote adopting the ‘Connected Continent’ Regulation proposal, whereby the European Parliament has endorsed the introduction of much needed, strong, and unambiguous safeguards for net neutrality and the open character of the Internet.
With this step, the Parliament has vowed to protect unhindered innovation and the free flow of information on the Internet, with the rule that “[e]nd-users shall have the right to access and distribute information and content, run and provide applications and services and use terminals of their choice, irrespective of the end-user’s or provider’s location or the location, origin or destination of the service, information or content, via their internet access service.”
At the same time, the text leaves the door open for so-called ‘specialised services’, which would be distinct from Internet access and provide enhanced quality of delivery, as long as “they are not to the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access”. As VON Europe added “[t]he text adopted today in Plenary will help maintain a high quality Internet for all and, contrary to some claims, will not prohibit services […] such as VPNs for businesses, IP-TV and telepresence..”
We now look to the Council of EU governments to ratify this important result as quickly as possible – and then for regulators to stamp out urgently and proactively the ongoing bad practices which have taken root in Europe over the past years, and prevent any further wrongdoing. This will need resolve but also careful and balanced work by the authorities, who will deal with sometimes complex technical matters. We and others in industry and civil society will stand ready to continue supporting their efforts on the ground.
As we argued over a year ago, these much-needed EU ‘rules of the road’ for an open Internet, will reinforce the dynamism of the Internet in Europe, and benefit everyone in the ecosystem – from end-users, to telecom companies, online platforms, broadcasters and the cultural sectors, and in particular entrepreneurs driving new innovations.
Once this is in place, we can move to the real job of making Europe the strong Internet economy and society that it deserves to be, with the benefits it will entail for all of us – from innovation, economic growth and job creation to cultural diversity and free expression, setting an example and the lead for the rest of the world.