Net neutrality in Europe: Top court rules for open Internet

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The ruling is a major rebuke to telecom giants and ISPs. Internet traffic needs to be treated in a non-discriminatory manner. ISP’s may not favour certain traffic over others or apply a premium price.

In a long-awaited decision, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled to put people over profit. The decision, which came down on Tuesday, adds teeth to the EU’s regulations regarding an open Internet.

The main thrust of the ruling is that it prevents ISPs and telcos from picking Internet winners and losers. The ruling forbids ISPs to create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” in order to promote some services over others.

The CJEU is responsible for interpreting EU law and ensuring it is applied evenly throughout the EU.

The full text of the court’s findings can be found in PDF format here.

The court said: “the requirements to protect Internet users’ rights and to treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner preclude an internet access provider from favouring certain applications and services.”

No to “zero tariff” favouritism

The ruling also outlaws “zero tariff” arrangements. These are schemes where the ISP or telco designates specific apps or services to be free of data caps.

The court said that such a zero-tariff approach “is liable to limit the exercise of end users’ rights.” Such schemes “are liable to increase the use of the favoured applications and services and, accordingly, to reduce the use of the other applications and services available.”

Consumer-rights groups and Internet companies welcomed the decision; telecom companies and ISPs condemned it. Industry incumbents claim the current net neutrality rules are too restrictive and prevent them from creating additional revenue streams. They need these streams, they say, to offset falling income from traditional fixed line telephone services.

A global benchmark?

This is most likely the first time the CJEU has weighed in on the subject of an open Internet. The case has garnered interest globally and many governments around the world submitted comments and advice to the court for review. These countries included Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, and Slovenia.

The court said that relevant regulations meant that no company had the right to limit people’s right to an open Internet and that people exercise those rights “via their Internet access service.”

Finally, a court has decided that ISP profits do not come before people’s rights, at least in Europe. The ruling is unlikely to have any effect in the United States. In 2017 the Trump FCC reversed the Obama-era Net Neutrality rules. Net Neutrality proponents hope that if Joe Biden wins the November election, he will re-establish Obama’s policies, including Net Neutrality.