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Is the future of Europe's Internet in danger?

The EU Parliament is set to vote on legislation that will impact the future of Europe's Internet. But digital rights groups say the draft bill has not gone far enough, and may "threaten innovation" in the 28-nation bloc.

The EU Parliament on Tuesday is expected to vote on legislation that would affect the 28-nation bloc's future of

net neutrality in Europe;

a move that many digital rights organizations and web users believe will endanger the very fabric of the Internet.

According to the Global Net Neutrality Coalition, an alliance of digital rights organizations and advocates, "Net neutrality is the principle according to which Internet traffic shall be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference regardless of its sender, recipient, type or content."

The term was originally coined in 2003 by Tim Wu, a law professor at the University of Colombia, to define a "network design principle" through which a "maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites and platforms equally."

The underlying concept is that the Internet should be open and accessible to all, without interference, especially from Internet service providers (ISP).

Fast lanes and zero-rating

The EU Parliament's Tuesday decision is likely to mark a new era for Europe's Internet traffic, which is expected to more than triple by 2019, according to projections from technology giant Cisco.

One of the controversial aspects of the draft legislation, under the title "European single market for electronic communications," is the establishment of so-called "fast lanes," which would allow ISPs to offer services, such as greater speeds, to entities willing to pay for it.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web (WWW) and director of the Web Foundation, believes these "fast lanes" would be detrimental to the Internet.

"Fast lanes will make it harder for anyone who can't pay extra fees - start-ups, small businesses, artists and educators in Europe and around the globe - to reach Europeans online," Berners-Lee said in a statement on Monday.

Another issue the legislation is unclear on is the use of "zero-rating" schemes, which would effectively allow ISPs to provide limitless data for certain services.

European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI) Director Joe McNamee told DW that the language isn't clear enough in the draft legislation, which would allow regulators to define how the law may be implemented.

"Imagine that you have a Deutsche Telekom mobile phone in Germany, and you have a download limit of 250 megabytes. They could offer unlimited access to (German public broadcasters) ARD or ZDF, but you would need to pay for additional downloads to access anything else," McNamee told DW.

"So somebody who wanted to watch the news, for example, they would think: 'Do I want to watch the news on my mobile? I can go to ARD or ZDF, because I don't have to worry about them since I can watch as much as I want to without any extra charge. I won't go to Deutsche Welle because if I download more than 250 megabytes, I'll have to pay for it,'" McNamee added.

With Internet traffic expected to more than triple from 2013 to 2019, who will reap the benefits?

With Internet traffic expected to more than triple from 2013 to 2019, who will reap the benefits?

'Threaten innovation'

Many digital rights groups believe that if the legislation is left unchanged, without amendments proposed by a handful of MEPs (Member of European Parliament), it would result in an asymmetrical field for competition.

"Regarding the impact on small enterprises, the very nature of zero-rating programs infringe on one of the basic principles of the internet: innovation without permission. Anyone, anywhere with a great idea for a website or a blog should be able to access all internet users," Access Now's policy analyst Estelle Masse told DW.

"Zero-rating schemes would require online services to pay a toll to ISPs to be able to deliver their services. In this context, only big established services will be able to gain access to users, creating a disadvantage for all innovative services," Masse said.

WWW inventor Berners-Lee agrees that if the text is not changed, it would not only restrict small and medium-sized enterprises from competing with larger companies, but it would also "threaten innovation."

"If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe's ability to lead in the digital economy," Berners-Lee said.

The proposed amendments aim to clarify the draft's language on "fast lanes" and zero-rating so that telecommunications regulators are not left as the sole arbiters of net neutrality.

"The current text is a first step in the right direction, but as major uncertainties remain, it will be up to courts or telecoms regulators to define the rules. In the past years, the EU Parliament has repeatedly voiced support for net neutrality; the passage of these amendments would confirm this commitment," Masse noted.

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