Net neutrality: Maybe Europe’s politicians simply dislike the open Internet

A German version of this article can be found here.

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.

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  1. Hi Martin,
    I think that you raised some important points in your analysis and I agree with most of them. However, how would a future – such as oulined by you – look like?
    A look at a very interesting article – published by the guys of Gizmodo in late July 2015 – might help:

    Here, they described in all detail what happened to the airline Industry, when deregulation regarding ticket and service pricing took off and many airlines startet to charge customers for goods and services they previously enjoyed free of charge (as they were “part of the deal” – meals, addtional luggage, early checkin, credit card payment, etc).

    The authors also pointed out, that – when looking back from nowadays – the airlines did not create better services for their customers, but gradually lowered the service level over time to such a threshold level that customers would a) not be alienated to use a particular airline and b) still be willing to purchase one of the aforementioned – now “premium” – services.

    If I had to make a bet, I would place a huge amount of money on the telco companies / carriers to act likewise in the near future in order to generate new income.

    Best regards, Stefan

    • Thank you! I actually fully agree with the airline analogy. In fact, I have made the comparison with the airline industry in an article (in German) last year :)

      “If I had to make a bet, I would place a huge amount of money on the telco companies / carriers to act likewise in the near future in order to generate new income.”

      I agree. Did I write anything in my article that sounds as if I would see another outcome?

      While my article focuses on the possible motivations of the European politicians for voting against net neutrality, from the perspective of the carriers, it is all about opening up additional revenue streams, exactly the way as the airlines did. And the outcome won’t be very good for the majority of people (except when it comes end prices for Internet access, maybe. But what are 10 Euro saved a month if it means giving up on the open Internet with all its possibilities).

      • Hmm, I was wondering if their are certain aspects / “services” nested in my actual DSL contract that might be “premium-fied” in the near future…. let’s see:

        Bandwith – okay, that’s a no brainer – the more mbits/s i want, the more i’ll have to pay; as my children have just begun to discover Youtube, I might by into this one sooner than later 8-)
        Lag – hmm, could be interesting for all the gamers outside, or for those who rely on time-critical services (such as video chats, video streaming…)
        Data plan / traffic – pff, tricky part; my actual contract with Deutsche Telekom contains a traffic capping clause, applicable when I use more then 200GB per month. By now, I’m well below this level, however, as I started with Amazon Prime and my children with Youtube, this amount might be insufficent in the mid run.
        Service levels – no matter how many complain about Dt. Telekom, I very happy with their service provided – call-center open on weekends, decent online servicing, email communication…. all that might end ip being charged for.
        Gate-Features / Third-Party-Service – so far, I have not experienced any website oder webservice – regardless of its particular nature, even ads – that was blocked / slowed / whatsoever by Dt. Telekom; what be a funny idea to chare extra – for example – for accessing music-/videostreamingsites, strip data streams from ads oder tracking features, etc.

        As you can see, there are tons of possibilities out there to make extra money for the telcos / carriers; however, most of them turn out not to be beneficial for their customers. 8-;

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