European civil rights groups join forces to defend net neutrality

The matter is urgent because the current draft regulation is on a tight timeline, the groups said

European Internet users could risk being charged extra money for accessing online services like Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, Skype and Whatsapp if a European draft regulation on net neutrality isn't amended before March, European civil rights groups warned Tuesday.

Civil rights groups EDRi (European Digital Rights), the German Digitale Gesellschaft, the French La Quadrature du Net, the Austrian Initiative für Netzfreiheit as well as the Brussels based Access Now group together launched a campaign called SaveTheInternet.eu aiming to amend or block the regulation.

The European Union is currently preparing a net neutrality law.

Net neutrality in principle means that all traffic on the internet is treated on an equal basis without regard to the type or origin of the content.

However, the European Commission's net neutrality proposal allows ISPs to charge extra for delivering "specialized services" -- and by not defining the term, could allow them apply the label to services such as Skype, YouTube and Whatsapp that compete with their own offerings, and charge customers to access them, the groups warned.

It is quite reasonable for Internet providers to claim the right to offer specialized network services such as high definition video at guaranteed speeds, as long as these services are run separately from the Internet and do not interfere with Internet quality, they said.

Allowing popular websites to be classified as specialized services is problematic, though: "This would lead to the creation of a two-tiered internet, where certain services would be prioritized while others would be pushed into the slow lane. As a consequence, this would restrict the freedom of communication and the possibilities and incentives for innovation," they said.

It could also hamper competition in the free market, they said. If a "specialized offer" for instance allows a mobile operator to offer unmetered access to Facebook while everything else is subjected to payment based on volume of downloaded data, it will restrict the possible market available to potential competitors, restricting choice and innovation in the long run, they said.

In the U.S., AT&T has raised similar concerns over the future of net neutrality with its proposals last week for "sponsored data", a way in which websites can pay it to ensure that access to their services is not counted against mobile customers' data limits.

Moreover, the proposed text would give users the freedom to choose discriminatory services, perhaps in return for a lower fee. "This 'freedom' will ultimately be negative for internet users and negative for the broader online innovative environment," the groups said.

Freedom to choose between numerous confusing service options has caused people to pay too much for the services they need, the groups said. Therefore the text needs to be changed to ensure it does not allow discriminatory services to be offered by ISPs, they added.

The groups are also trying to prevent blocking of legal online services without a court order. "Unless the Regulation is amended, Internet Providers will be able to block content without any judicial oversight. Internet service providers should not be the police of the internet. They should not be allowed to decide what content you can and cannot access," the groups said.

The regulation is now up for discussion in the European Parliament. Therefore the groups urged European citizens to start contacting their Members of Parliament (MEPs) to make them aware of the problems in the draft regulation, especially because the legislation is on a very strict timeline.

The draft is scheduled to be voted on by the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee, the lead committee of the European Parliament, on Feb. 27, the groups said. The Parliament hopes to conclude negotiations before elections in May 2014, they added.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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