The EU Outpaces the US on Net Neutrality

Apr 3 2014, 6:22pm CDT | by

The EU Outpaces the US on Net Neutrality
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Net neutrality is very important.

As topics go, it’s a tough one in terms of rousing emotion: fairly technical, not immediately apparent why the average person should give a rip, and – really – what could be more mind-numbing than a back-and-forth about bandwidth access?

As it happens, net neutrality is a big deal and today, the European Union voted in favor of robust rules that would promote more equal access to the Internet, placing the EU squarely at the vanguard of this fight, even ahead of the United States.

Net neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet has to be treated the same way, equally, without regard for other factors such as the platform, application or user.  In other words, we’d all be able to see the same content on the web, without restriction or interference, and it would be delivered in essentially the same time.

An Internet that did not adhere to net neutrality could look quite different.  We might see that some companies could pay telecom giants exorbitant sums for faster service – great for them, but bad for the rest of us.  In this model, the telcos have little incentive to innovate and provide services that are worth the uptick in price – but many might pay anyway.  It’s similar to choosing the premium economy option when you fly. It’s not that an Economy Plus or Economy Comfort seat is superior on its own merits – it’s just that coach is so bad, we grit our teeth and pay the fee.  There’s even concern that compromising net neutrality would mean influence over the content we actually see – completely antithetical to what we understand the spirit of the Internet to be: owned by no one and everyone.

In advance of the EU vote on Thursday, four big telecommunications industry associations released a joint statement condemning the legislation, emphasizing the “restrictive” nature of the proposed amendments.  It would stifle innovation, they allege, impede competition – a retread of the tired arguments we hear nearly without fail every time some effort is made to protect consumers and as a result, curb a large and aggressive industry.

The United States hasn’t been as progressive on net neutrality – or digital privacy issues, for that matter – as the EU.  But on both sides of the pond, influencers and stakeholders were watching the net neutrality vote as a harbinger of things to come.  Would the EU swing pro-consumer, pro-free Internet – or would they align with the anti-innovation argument the big telcos pushed?  Now that the vote is in, could it spur more conversation stateside?

Net neutrality is especially salient now.  Just this week, though the FCC did open the door to regulating deals between websites and Internet Service Providers, the agency declined to consider expanding net-neutrality rules, a disappointing response to pressure from Netflix, which has said it has to pay a significant fee (or Information highway “toll”) to Comcast for better access to its customers.  It’s just one case, to be sure, but it could be a bellwether for the future of net neutrality in the US.

Here’s hoping the vote today across the pond accelerates discussion back home in the US.  It’s a worthwhile one to have – and long overdue.


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