The European Parliament has passed the flawed compromise text on net neutrality without including any of the amendments that would have closed serious loopholes. The vote, with 500 in favour, and 163 against, took place in a plenary session a few hours after a rather lacklustre debate this morning, which was attended by only 50 MEPs out of the European Parliament’s total of 751, indicating little interest in this key topic among most European politicians. The Greens MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht called the final result a “dirty deal.”
Arguments in favour of the text were disappointing and superficial. Many concentrated on the other major component of the Telecoms Single Market package, the abolition of mobile roaming charges in the EU. This long-overdue, and highly-popular measure was cleverly offered as a carrot by the Council of the EU and the European Commission in order to persuade MEPs to accept the rest of the package. The misleading impression was given that supporting the net neutrality amendments proposed by MEPs would cause the abolition of roaming charges to be lost, but that was not the case.
As the German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda pointed out, the Telecoms Single Market package doesn’t even deliver on roaming: “The plan to place an end to roaming surcharges in Europe has been adopted pending a review of pricing and consumption patterns. Even if the review is completed by the 15 June 2017 deadline, roaming surcharges will only be suspended up to a ‘fair use’ limit beyond which they still apply and continue to hinder the breaking down of barriers within Europe.” In other words, those MEPs who voted in favour of the package in the belief that accepting poor net neutrality rules was a price worth paying in order to buy a speedy end to EU roaming charges were played for mugs.
On the few occasions that MEPs supporting the compromise text addressed the net neutrality rules directly, they simply parroted the claim by telecom companies that specialised services running over fast lanes were needed in order to encourage innovation in the EU. As those in favour of true net neutrality—including such luminaries as Sir Tim Berners-Lee—have emphasised, the opposite is true. For innovation to flourish as it has done so far, a level playing-field is needed. Allowing fast and slow lanes on the Internet plays into the hands of incumbents and companies with deep pockets.
Pressure was applied at the end of the morning’s debate by Andrus Ansip, the vice-commissioner responsible for the EU Digital Market. He said that if the text was not passed in its entirety now, there was “a risk of delays, not only months, but years,” and that “risk” may have weighed with some MEPs. But Reda pointed out on Twitter that is not true: “Actually it’s only 6 weeks until 3rd reading,” when a new compromise text could have been agreed. One other reason MEPs may have been unwilling to change the text was that it has been going back and forth between the various institutions of the EU for years, and MEPs are evidently sick of discussing it, as the poor turn-out for the earlier debate showed. In the end, sheer political fatigue may have played a major part in undermining net neutrality in the EU.
However, the battle is not quite over. As Anne Jellema, CEO of the Web Foundation, which was established by Berners-Lee in 2009, notes in her response to today’s EU vote: “The European Parliament is essentially tossing a hot potato to the Body of European Regulators, national regulators and the courts, who will have to decide how these spectacularly unclear rules will be implemented. The onus is now on these groups to heed the call of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens and prevent a two-speed Internet.”