Public Affairs Networking
Are our politicians doing enough to ensure the internet is ‘free and open’?

It should be unthinkable for a politician to be anti-digital, or indeed anti-internet – after all we rely on the net for our entertainment, travel, learning, jobs and our future economy – writes Andy Halsall

Can you imagine a world in which you have to pay a little extra to see the occasional YouTube clip? A place where there is a small charge for every iPlayer episode you watch? What about a world where it is free and quick to upload photos to your internet service provider’s photo sharing service but it takes hours to do the same using flickr? Or horror of horrors, what about a world where your ISP has done a deal with Microsoft, and you can quickly access Bing, but Google is strangely unresponsive.

Happily, that’s a world we are unlikely to wake up to any time soon. That is because the European Parliament has decided that network neutrality should be included in its ‘Connected Continent’ regulations. Net neutrality being the principle that all internet traffic regardless of source, destination or type must be treated equally. In essence, the foundation of a free and open internet.

‘Connected Continent’ or the ‘Telecoms Single Market Regulation’ is the same package of regulations that will eliminate mobile call and data-roaming charges across the European Union by Christmas 2015. It will ensure that companies, large and small, wherever they are in Europe will be competing on a level playing field when it comes to communications across the continent.

We hear a lot about EU laws and usually the phrase has negative connotations. In this case though it is hard to complain. This is the EU regulating telecommunications at the right level. After all, national parliaments are not in a position to do what is now being done. The government in the United Kingdom may have been able to regulate UK-based communications providers – if they wanted to, there was a voluntary agreement in place after all – but doing so across the continent would have been almost impossible. It is a feat that would have been made harder by all the special interests and lobbyists involved.

The BBC, whose ‘iPlayer’ television and radio on demand – and catch-up service in the UK – saw a record three billion programme requests in 2013 and remains a staple for British internet users, also waded into the debate making it clear they supported net-neutrality. “The open internet remains a key distribution platform for existing offers like BBC iPlayer and innovative new services,” the BBC stated.

But why did the EU take this position? After all, the direction of travel in the United States is very much in the opposite direction. In fact, American courts recently rejected rules that required Internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. There has not been as much movement as you would hope in EU member states either, partly due to inertia and a lack of understanding of the importance of such rules. Then there are those lobbyists again, whose
paymasters wanted to take advantage of the lack of controls.

The answer is citizen activism and MEPs who understand the issues. European parliamentarians like Amelia Andersdottir, Catherine Trautmann, Marietje Schaake and Petra Kamme revert together with organisations like the Pirate Party, La Quadrature du Net and Bits of Freedom. The work of these outstanding individuals and groups is a big part of the reason why we are looking at a brighter future online in Europe.

Yet if you look at the UK, you realise that those of us who support an open and free internet still have a lot to do. The swathe of UK MEPs like Richard Howitt and Arlene McCarthy of Labour as well as Conservatives like Vicky Ford who vocally oppose net neutrality and will find themselves on the wrong side of history, are clear evidence of that. There is still a real need to inform those in power at a national and EU level, and counter some of the disturbing suggestions put forward by groups that should know better.

It should be unthinkable for a politician to be anti-digital, or indeed anti-internet. After all we rely on the net for our entertainment, travel, learning, jobs and our future economy. A free and open internet is a vital tool for many small UK firms; it is their greatest advantage when challenging the big industry players. It is a source of innovation and a huge driver of progress, all things we need to build a better economy. Yet it seems that there are a few that still do not get it.

This week, many of us can be proud of the people we elected to the European Parliament. We can hope that positions on important issues like net neutrality, digital rights and curbing mass surveillance will play a part in the elections in May of this year and that those who seek to represent us listen. After all, the acceptance of net neutrality by the EU and its member states will ensure that Europe is competitive and that we can all take advantage of what is arguably the greatest innovation of our age, and there are a raft of digital issues that need to be dealt with to keep it free.

Andy Halsall is campaigns officer at the Pirate Party UK

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