EU passes net neutrality law, votes to end throttling, site blocking

03/04/2014 18:34

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NEW YORK — Finally, the Europeans did something even their mighty friend, the United States, couldn't achieve.

Members of the European Parliament on Thursday voted on sweeping changes to the 28 member state bloc's internet and mobile laws, which will see fairer treatment to end-users and businesses alike by treating all Internet traffic equally regardless of its content or provider.

That would mean Internet providers cannot throttle a user streaming Netflix content because of the high-bandwidth costs, or mobile carriers blocking access to Skype because it hurts voice, calling, and text-messaging revenue.

The legislation, which does not differentiate between cellular and landline networks, means both fixed-line and on-the-go mobile users will benefit from the law, at a time when European cell providers are ramping up investment spending in order to account for the massive spike in data consumption.

The package includes amendments that define and protect net neutrality.

Part of the wording of the bill passed first by the European Parliament's trade committee that referred to "specialized services" can be exempted from the rules, but some in the parliament were angered by its broad and vague definition. The concerns were that Internet providers could categorize video streaming services, such as Netflix and Google — which would benefit from the net neutrality rules — as "specialized services", effectively negating some of the gains they would receive.

EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in remarks following the vote: "This vote is the EU delivering for citizens."

"Beyond the highly visible barrier of roaming we are now close to removing many other barriers so Europeans can enjoy open, seamless communications wherever they are," she added.

Today's parliamentary ruling marks the largest collective national push for net neutrality — a feat the U.S. failed to accomplish in recent weeks — after the U.S. government lost against Verizon and Comcast in court earlier this year.

Phone and internet providers have in recent months and years started  charging content providers — such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, and others — higher charges for premium networking speeds. Carriers believe that high-definition streaming and content downloading adds an extra burden to their overall network capacity.

Up until now, only the Netherlands and Slovenia had net neutrality laws in place.

But the conclusion is far from over, and passage into law remains on a knife's edge. Leaders from Europe's 28 countries will have to approve the deal, but that may drag on until past May, when parliamentary elections are called. That could result in delays that may lead to the debate being reopened or scrapped later down the line.

Even then, European leaders are expected to water down some of the proposals made by center and left politicians, which will be welcomed by telecoms giants. Meanwhile, Germany and the U.K. are looking to guarantee at very least the prevention of throttling and blocking rival services.

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