European vote puts Net neutrality in peril

The European Parliament passes legislation that would let companies pay to prioritize their Internet traffic. Opponents included Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and the likes of Netflix and Reddit.

The European Parliament has rejected key rules designed to secure the future of the open Internet, potentially threatening the way residents get their online fix.

Members of the European Parliament voted Tuesday to allow companies to pay for the privilege of having their traffic prioritized in “fast lanes” and did not eliminate the potential for Internet service providers to change traffic speeds.

For consumers, that could over time prove disruptive to their daily habits of watching streaming video, uploading photos to social media sites or doing online shopping. Some services could bog down if providers don’t pay for access to higher Internet speeds, or speedy services could end up costing more.

Four significant amendments were rejected just before the Parliament voted to adopt legislation governing Net neutrality, the concept that all online traffic should be treated equally. A premise behind Net neutrality is that every company can start on equal footing when competing in the digital economy.

The European Parliament’s decision contributes to a global and ongoing debate over the openness of the Internet. By adopting the law but rejecting the amendments, Europe has set itself apart from the US, which earlier this year voted to strengthen Net neutrality. Rejecting the amendments may make the Internet a trickier place for online services to do business in Europe, both technically and economically. It also means European Internet users can’t continue to go online with the same expectations of traffic equality that they have now.

Internet service providers, however, say the increased flexibility in the rules will help them manage online traffic. The ability to charge for priority access will also encourage further investment in network infrastructure, the ISPs say.

“There can be no doubt that the Internet is a valuable asset,” Member of European Parliament Pilar del Castillo Vera, who steered the legislation, said immediately following the vote. “It is full of opportunities for all. We need to handle this asset very carefully.”

The rejected amendments were supported by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and a long list of rights groups, academics and businesses, including Netflix, Reddit, Tumblr, Etsy and BitTorrent. In a blog post ahead of the vote, Berners-Lee reminded politicians that he built the Web on the principle of openness and that this principle led to its current ubiquity.

The amendments ensure “economic growth and social progress” in Europe, he said in a blog post. Rejecting them would “threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy,” he added.

Rights groups and some Parliament members expressed dismay over the rejection and offered their take on what will happen next.

“The fight for Net Neutrality is not over,” said Estelle Masse, a policy analyst for digital rights organization Access Now. By rejecting the amendments, Masse said, Parliament has left it up to courts and national regulators to determine the meaning of the law.

What will follow is a nine-month consultation period during which rights groups and regulators will seek to clarify the legal text and to establish how the Internet should be governed. “The EU telecoms regulators are now tasked to finish the work started by the EU legislators to ensure that free expression online is protected,” Masse said.

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