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'Free internet' for Germany despite US repeal

December 15, 2017

Berlin has vowed to back an "open and free internet" following a US decision to repeal net neutrality rules. But some experts say the US move could open the floodgates to a multi-speed internet in Europe.

cables in a server room
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

After US telecoms regulator FCC on Thursday moved to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, the German Economics Ministry said Friday it would continue to support EU internet rules that forbid discriminatory access to the web.

"An open and free internet is indispensable for the successful development of a digital society that everyone wants to take part in," the ministry's spokeswoman, Beate Baron, told reporters. She declined to comment directly on the FCC's decision, but said that the German government had "taken note" of the US move.

Led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 in favor of scrapping 2015 rules, ending regulations that were meant to ensure all internet services are treated equally.

Pai said rolling back net neutrality was "restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence."

Read more: Opinion: End of net neutrality — license to print money

However, big US telecommunications companies, including Comcast, Verizon and AT&T had lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and discourage investment in broadband networks.

A death sentence for open and fair internet?

EU regulation crumbling?

The European Union adopted sweeping net neutrality rules in 2016 to ensure that internet providers in the bloc's 28 member states can't give preferential treatment to the data of any particular company or to websites paying higher prices.

But some experts in Germany are arguing that the shift in how internet content reaches US consumers could have a knock-on effect in Europe.

Read more: EU internet policing proposals spark free speech concerns

Klaus Müller of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV), said Europeans would "indirectly feel" the impact although not immediately. The market power of major internet providers would grow, he told the German newspaper SZ on Friday, and the selection offered to European consumers would shrink.

Online activist Markus Beckedahl said the new US rules could become "trendsetters" for future European regulation. "European internet providers are now looking enviously at the US," he told regional radio broadcaster SWR.

Exploiting loopholes

The German experts also criticized the fact that some European telecoms operators were already taking advantage of some "grey areas" in EU regulations.

They said the bloc's rules had left open a major regulatory loophole for a practice called "zero rating." This means a mobile network operator does not charge for data used on certain applications or services, giving them preferential treatment over competitors.

In Germany, for example, Deutsche Telekom offers a service called StreamOn, which allows users to access unlimited videos and music from specific partners like Netflix. The country's telecom regulator approved the deal — a decision which Klaus Müller described as "clearly undermining internet freedom."

StreamOn sought to address some of the concerns by expanding the offer to include around 50 partners.

Read more: End of the road for Facebook's free Internet in India?

Moreover, when Netflix entered the European market in 2012, some national telecom companies forced it to pay "tolls" to deliver content to customers. Netflix did not name the companies, but told regulators in a letter that the dispute showed "the importance of strong net neutrality rules."

The advocates of strong net neutrality rules in Europe include not only consumer advocacy groups, but also businesses and civil society organizations. Ahead of the FCC ruling, over 200 of them wrote a letter to the regulator's chairman Ajit Pai, warning that ending the US net neutrality rules would undermine privacy, free speech and competition on the internet.

The countries which are best regarding internet freedom and e-citizenship

uhe/aos (Reuters, dpa, AP)

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