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European Parliament votes for net neutrality bill set to hit online giants hard

European Parliament votes for net neutrality bill set to hit online giants hard
The European Parliament has voted in a bill that will eliminate cell phone roaming fees and keep big telecoms operators from selectively slowing down web traffic to make more profit. The popular measure is set to create a single EU communications market.

That is what its creators believe is needed for a Europe segmented by overcharging mobile phone operators and prioritized internet traffic. The law, while containing a few other provisions to make the EU consumer’s life easier – like increased consumer protection on contracts – will also deal a huge blow to traffic-hungry companies like Google and NetFlix, who have always insisted that such measures create extra costs for them.

The idea of the ‘single market’ will also strike at giant cell phone operators like Britain’s Vodafone and France’s Orange, forcing them to provide a better service to their customers.

"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for digital affairs said at the session, which took place in Brussels. "This is what the EU is all about - getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped off, and we should have the opportunity to change our minds," she added.

“We have achieved further guarantees to maintain the openness of the internet by ensuring that users can run and provide applications and services of their choice as well as reinforcing the internet as a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, jobs, social development and innovation,” rapporteur Pilar del Castillo Vera announced.

The law seeks a clearer framework for both consumer data protection and to keep certain providers from boosting some services at the expense of others. One example of this practice is in how one provider slowed down video-based services like Skype to make way for other traffic.

The measure will not prevent companies from offering specialized, high-quality services which they excel at; but it takes care that such things don’t happen “to the detriment of the availability or quality of internet access services” offered by other companies and coms providers.

Further to this, the list of cases considered “exceptional” to net neutrality has been shortened. The MEPs believe them to be necessary only in the event of a court order, and they must be “transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate,” they said.

EU commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes (AFP Photo)

Apart from that, the law is also aimed at boosting Europe’s competitiveness with the US and Asia. It can’t do that with everyone fighting for their own piece of the pie.

But internet providers and telecom operators are not giving in easily. Similar to cases in other countries where net neutrality laws were passed, they don’t want to be cut off from the extra money they get from companies like Google for giving their traffic priority and slowing other sites down.

They claim that such price discrimination is a tactic that helps fund upgrades and improvements to their services. Activists say they go against the principles of a free internet, as well as lead to the creation of a polarized speed policy.
But such practices have become quite common in the US these days.

With European telecom operators standing to lose big for the fifth year in a row in 2014, fighting for a share of the profits from video streaming and music will take center stage as revenues from traditional phone-related services will decline.

The bill is a big blow to companies, but also a notable advantage for the MEPs waiting for the upcoming EP elections in two months’ time. The no-roaming-charges and anti-favoritism measures have been on the agenda for the past several years, as MEPs and telecoms providers were locked in battle.

Further disagreements come from lobbying groups who believe net neutrality to be the killer of jobs and competitiveness, “Today’s vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent Regulation, namely a strong European digital industry igniting growth and jobs creation," Luigi Gambardella, head of the lobbying group ETNO, told Reuters.
But there are also bigger points for net neutrality to score as a concept.

When Brazil passed its own version of the bill last month, it did so not only to combat higher telecom charges, but to follow the lead of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose revelations of a wide US data-mining initiative prompted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to get Google and Facebook to abide by Brazilian laws, where private user data was concerned.

The current EP package is still subject to changes, as it must still get the approval of the Council of the European Union, which is comprised of representatives of each member state.