Written by Joe Mcnamee, Executive Director of EDRi
The European Union has a strong record in regulating the telecommunications market in a way which supports competition and innovation, increasing choice while bringing down prices. Virtually every European citizen and business reaps the benefits every day.
Now, we are faced with a new choice, do we legislate to ensure that the internet remains the open, competitive and innovative space that brings business and society such benefits? Or do we believe the well-worn threats from telecoms operators about innovation and certainty – risking the benefits of the many, in order to protect the short-term interests of the few? If this risk wasn’t big enough, are we prepared to take it, knowing that the USA has equipped itself with the tools to ensure that its online companies and its innovators will be able to be protected from anti-competitive behaviour of telecoms operators?
Net neutrality – time to learn from our successes
It is an unfortunate fact of politics that politicians’ achievements are rarely remembered and their failures often never forgotten.
Virtually every European business and citizen benefits every day from the greater choice and lower costs that Europe’s telecommunications liberalisation has delivered. It is a policy that has been pursued consistently by every European Commission since the 1980s and the success has become so normal that we have forgotten the prohibitively expensive international calls, we no longer remember having to rent a phone from the operator because using your own equipment was not permitted and having no choice except the monopoly.
In much the same way, we underestimate the huge and increasing benefits that the internet has given citizens and business in Europe and globally. It is such a natural thing to be able to communicate globally, without permission, to innovate and put oneself at the world’s fingertips that we don’t stop and think what if this openness is put at risk? What if the core functionality of the internet is put at risk by short-term policies of telecoms operators?
What if? What if, instead of being able to speak, to educate, to campaign, to innovate, compete and win, there were gatekeepers in the way? What if the telecoms operators were able to wind the clock so far backwards, that they were able to introduce the same anti-competitive billing systems that took Europe decades to dismantle? What if, instead of having a business model where you pay to access the internet, you still have to pay to access the internet, but the internet also has to pay to gain access to you?
The Digital Fuel Monitor consultancy found 75 examples of price discrimination in Europe. Under this discriminatory model, internet users (usually, but not always, mobile) are able to access a few online services without download fees, but have to pay for access to everything else. Maybe a European innovator could successfully throw himself or herself to the mercy of the operator and plead for an equal opportunity to reach the operators’ customers (assuming the operator isn’t planning to launch a similar service). Maybe half of the big operators would even be this generous. Maybe the innovator could go into debt to buy equal access to the operator’s customers. Maybe the risk of these rights being rescinded would not be too great for a bank to underwrite. Maybe.
Remarkably, instead of recognising and building on its success in telecommunications liberalisation, the European Commission seems intent on going backwards and undoing its own good work. A German business newspaper even quoted current EU Digital Commissioner Guenther Oettinger as saying “So far, we have ensured that consumers benefit from the liberalisation of telecoms markets. From now on our actions must be more geared more toward allowing companies to make fair profits”. Or, to put it another way, every European citizen, every European micro, small, medium-sized or large corporation has benefited from the choice, innovation and prices of a liberalised market. From now on the EU must be geared at allowing a few ex monopolies to make profits.
More remarkably still, the European Commission appears either unaware of, or indifferent to, basic facts related to net neutrality. It explains that telemedicine would be banned by net neutrality – but fails to explain what services would be banned by the having a neutral and non-discriminatory network. It explains that emergency services will be damaged by net neutrality, even though this is simply not true. It explains that new smart car safety information systems would be banned by net neutrality – even though BMW has publicly stated that this is simply not true.
Is the European Commission unaware of the facts or is it simply seeking to achieve what the Commissioner has already stated – profits for the few telecoms businesses, to the cost of European business, European citizens and European competitiveness?
We are now very slowly progressing towards the “end-game” in the adoption of the European Telecoms Single Market Regulation. From the Commission’s initial proposal, made in September 2013, the broadly unrelated topics of net neutrality and roaming remain. While the US has moved forward and has now given itself the tools to protect free speech, competition and innovation for its online industry, European discussions remain mired in half-truths and the risk of a potential deal on finally eliminating telecoms industry abuses in the roaming market being used as a way of railroading the European Parliament into accepting the end of net neutrality in Europe.
European leaders need to reflect on what is at stake. They need to learn from past successes and continue to legislate for competition and innovation. Decisions taken in the coming weeks will shape Europe’s experience of the internet for years to come. These decisions will have a major influence globally on the internet as a platform for innovation and free speech. Let’s get it right!