Last week’s vote by the EU parliament to give up on net neutrality (by sneakily pretending to protect it) was perceived by many within the digital sector as a major mistake and blow to Europe’s digital future. The overwhelmingly strong case for net neutrality was apparently not enough to convince the members of the parliament. The big question is: Why not?
To some extent, massive and infamously successful lobbying by the telecommunication giants undoubtedly must have played a role. Yet, the carriers’ obvious attempts to influence the opinion in Brussels can hardly be the only explanation for why the EU politicians did not accept the amendments that would have fixed the loopholes and weaknesses of the new regulation framework.
I have a theory what else might have influenced their decisions: The widespread desire among the European political class to gain more control over Internet – through a backdoor.
Governments worldwide see the Internet as a threat to their power. A recent report by Freedom House concluded that global Internet freedom has been reduced for the fifth year in a row. Censorship, filtering of content and blocking of social media platforms as well as a crack-down on activists and tools promoting Internet freedom and personal integrity online have become the status quo. Most of the European countries are still doing fairly well, and many of the approaches employed by repressive governments in non-democratic countries for obvious reasons cannot be legally utilized by authorities in Europe. And while surveillance activities are being intensified in many countries, including Germany, France and (of course) the UK, the revelations of Edward Snowden have led to increased public awareness and scrutiny.
This is why the governments of European countries that are represented in the EU parliament could see the abolition of net neutrality as a backdoor for more control over the Internet. Their hope might be that by allowing and actively promoting the concept of Internet fast-lanes for so called “specialized services”, those characteristics of the “traditional Internet” that could pose a perceived threat to governments, civil order or other national/regional interests, might eventually be weakened.
To explain what I mean, here is how the next years could play out in regards to how Europeans will access the Internet, factoring in the European Union’s new rules.
First, the idea of a Two-Tier-Internet will be established in the public mind and slowly normalized. This Two-Tier-Internet would consist of regular access plans as well as specialized service plans. The latter would be based on formalized, revenue-generating partnerships between telecommunication companies and online services (as already suggested by Deutsche Telekom days after last week’s vote), promising users an added level of quality guarantee and performance for specific digital apps and services. As soon as the majority of the people has gotten used to this new approach to Internet access, the number and variety of specialized services will grow faster.
By offering specialized services at massive discounts and with a high level of convenience, by excluding these services from usual data traffic caps (“zero-rating”, which is not being outlawed by the new rules, either), by running high-profile marketing campaigns promoting specialized services, and by reducing the spotlight and attention for the traditional Internet access plans, specialized services would be turned into the main means of accessing the Internet for the majority of people. You would not use your regular Internet plan anymore, but service packages with names like Gaming Unlimited, Music Paradise, VirtualReality XL, Movies 8k, News 24/7, Social Networking Premium etc. Sorry for not being more creative with my naming examples.
The final result would be an online landscape in which the majority of people uses a small number of major digital services packaged, promoted, supervised and monitored by a syndicate of Internet access providers, Internet service operators as well as governmental and investigating authorities. So generally, not too different to how the TV landscape looked like (and still does). Only a few people would still seek the old, “unorganized”, comparatively wild Internet. There they’d use services that have been labeled as unsafe and questionable by the authorities. These users would be object of intense, targeted surveillance. Since their number would be comparatively small, for investigators today’s challenging search for suspicious activity within the giant mountain of big data would become obsolete.
The scenario described is speculative. But considering the overall social, political and technological climate in Europe, the track-record of mainstream user and consumer behavior to gravitate towards convenience and dominant players, and general circumstances of our times, I do not find it unrealistic. Based on this theory, the answer to why not more of the members of the European Parliament have fought to really protect net neutrality in Europe (and thereby following the example of the U.S.), has nothing to do with whether they were convinced about the arguments for net neutrality or whether they want to help the telecom giants to access new revenue streams in order to pay for broadband expansion. Instead, they simply might be opposed to a principle which would strengthen the open, equal, free and slightly rebellious Internet of today.