The European Parliament is about to vote on proposals that could decide the future of the internet
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It's about "net neutrality," the principle that all data should be treated equally. The bill being debated ostensibly protects net neutrality - but activists fear that it is doing precisely the opposite, and are lining up to slam it as a threat to the open internet.
A broad coalition of rights groups, tech companies, and prominent industry figures now oppose the proposals, and are calling for amendments that could solve the issues.
"All data should be treated equally."
If net neutrality is enshrined in law, it means that certain types of data cannot be preferentially treated (or penalised). For example, Sony might want to pay an ISP to preferentially carry its gaming data to its customers over other kinds, in order to ensure a smooth connection. Or an ISP might choose to throttle peer-to-peer torrenting data clogging up its network. Strong net neutrality laws would prevent either of these two scenarios from taking place.
The concept is popular because its proponents argue that the alternative endangers innovation and only helps massive incumbents. How could a new streaming service compete with Netflix, for example, if Netflix is paying huge amounts to ensure its data will always be treated preferentially by ISPs? These paid-for "fast lanes" are, activists argue, antithetical to the idea of an equal and open internet.
The European Parliament proposals are supposed to protect net neutrality - but activists aren't convinced.
On Tuesday morning, the European Parliament was debating new legislation claiming to protect net neutrality. But its opponents argue it does the opposite.
In a blog post published last week, Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick laid out what she says are the four key problems with the European Parliament's proposed rules. These are:
"The proposal allows ISPs to create fast lanes for companies that pay through the specialized services exception." This exemption is intended for "specialized services" - like medical data, say - but van Schewick argues that the exception is "too broad," and that "in many cases, it still allows ISPs to offer fast lanes by calling them a specialized service."The proposal generally allows zero-rating and gives regulators very limited ability to police it, leaving users and companies without protection against all but the most egregious cases.
- "The proposal generally allows zero-rating and gives regulators very limited ability to police it, leaving users and companies without protection against all but the most egregious cases." If a service is zero-rated, it doesn't count towards a users' bandwidth cap or usage costs. This means companies could pay ISPs to be zero-rated - once again creating an unequal internet.
"The proposal allows ISPs to define classes and speed up or slow down traffic in those classes, even if there is no congestion." ISPs could still choose to discriminate against certain kinds of data (like peer-to-peer torrenting, for example). Van Schewick worries that because ISPs will not be able to identify what "class" encrypted data fits in, they will simply put them in the slowest lane - as has happened before. This will discourage the use of encryption, and make the internet less secure.
"The proposal allows ISPs to start managing congestion in the case of impending congestion. That means that they can slow down traffic anytime, not just during times of actual congestion." Van Schewick thinks this will be used as an excuse for discriminatory traffic management, "using the justification that congestion was just about to materialise."
The result comes in the early (European) afternoon.
The European Parliament is debating the proposals on Tuesday morning, and will vote on them - and any potential amendments that could tackle activists' concerns - in the afternoon. The vote is expected between 1pm-2:30pm, Brussels time. That's 12pm-1:30pm, UK time, or 8am-9:30am NYC time.
There's a broad range of critics.
Barbara van Schewick isn't the only one speaking out against the proposals by any means. She is joined by a coalition of activist and rights groups opposing the new rule, operating under the banner "Save The Internet." They include European Digital Rights (EDRi), the British Open Rights Group (ORG), La Quadrature du Net in France, and Reporters Without Borders.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is also a critic. He says that "if adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe's ability to lead in the digital economy."
Dozens of tech companies have also signed a letter opposing the proposals, including BitTorrent, EyeEm, Foursquare, Kickstarter, Netflix, Reddit, Transferwise, Vimeo, and YPlan. "These problems jeopardize the future of the startup innovation and economic growth in the EU. They also create barriers for U.S. startups and businesses seeking to enter the EU market," the letter reads. "We believe that the future of the open Internet in Europe is at stake and urgent action is warranted."
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