The European Parliament is preparing to vote on net neutrality legislation that has divided Internet activists and companies that bring the Net into people's homes and to their phones.
Votes in the European Parliament could have a major impact on how Europeans use the Internet. Members of the parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) will vote on a net neutrality proposal on Monday (24.02.2014).
Net neutrality is the principle that obligates companies that operate Internet infrastructure not to get involved in deciding what type of content may circulate on the Net, explained Jose Luis Orihuela, a professor of multimedia communication at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, and former jury member of The Bobs, DW's annual contest for the best in online activism.
"When telecoms or governments pretend to have the authority to decide about content, the most basic agreement behind the Net is challenged," he told DW. "This is the reason why every user of the Net's most important task should perform is to preserve its neutrality."
Fate of the Internet
Groups in favor of net neutrality formed an online campaign - Save the Internet - calling on Europeans to contact their EU parliamentarians to enshrine net neutrality in law.
"What we are discussing with the net neutrality debate is the fate of the Internet and the important legal principles that will shape the future of its architecture," said Felix Treguer, a co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based Internet advocacy group that is a part of the Save the Internet campaign.
But even the definition of what net neutrality is divides activists and telecom operators.
Treguer called on the EU to define net neutrality as the equal treatment of all types of Internet traffic, regardless of its content, who sends it and where it goes. The current definition being discussed, however, says that "equivalent traffic should be treated equally." It's a distinction that, according to Treguer, turns the concept of net neutrality on its head by allowing data transmissions to be prioritized or degraded depending on the content.
"The Internet is supposed to be a permitless platform where you can launch any service, any application without asking a telecom operator," he told DW. "By defining types of Internet traffic, it is possible to discriminate between types of applications."
Not all online services are the same
Such a stringent take on how to transmit data traffic, however, does not correspond with the way the Internet is used today, according to Deutsche Telekom spokesman Philipp Blank.
"The strict equal treatment of data packets is certainly not sensible and does not meet the demands of mainly new services being created," he told DW. "Even in the Netherlands, where there is a net neutrality law, services can be treated differently because services are different."
Blank added that such a stance did not mean Deutsche Telekom wanted the power to turn Internet services on or off.
A free and open Internet - with special services
"Deutsche Telekom is definitely on the side of an open and free Internet that lets people use all the services they choose to use," he said. "That is our understanding of net neutrality and that has to be maintained."
It's the structure of new and developing enhanced services that could be offered in the future that splits telecommunication providers and online rights groups.
"There are services that have higher quality requirements, there are services that are more sensitive than other services, such as telemedicine or a video conference," Blank said. "These are services that will only be accepted when they work correctly and there is a justification for them to be transported in a higher, guaranteed quality."
La Quadrature du Net's Treguer said allowing telecom operators to make deals prioritizing content from big providers, such as Google, Facebook or Amazon, would fundamentally change the Internet by providing faster access to some services and slower access to others.
"What is at stake is making sure that the open platform for innovation for competition for freedom of communication, for freedom of choice for Internet users is preserved," he said. "To deal with congested networks you need to buy more routers and buy more bandwidth - that is how the Internet grows and develops."
Another vote to come
Whether that continues to be the way the Internet develops in Europe will partially depend on the EU Parliament Industry Committee's conclusions on the definition of net neutrality and regulation of enhanced services. The committee's opinion will largely decide the content of the proposals sent to the entire parliament. A first reading of the proposed legislation is expected before the EU's parliamentary elections in May.