Monica Horton PhD Graduation PicturesAs the European Parliament votes today on the first reading of of the draft ‘Connected Continent’ regulation for a single market for telecoms. LSE Visiting Fellow Monica Horten explains the battle lines drawn on the most contentious issue – net neutrality – and argues it might be best to go back to the drawing board.

The duel between the telecoms industry and European citizens’ advocates  over net neutrality as the European Parliament prepares for a decisive  vote.  At stake is the very principle of net neutrality – will Europe be brave enough to enshrine it in law?

At stake is the entire future of the Internet in Europe.  The telecoms operators have a plan that will totally disrupt the Internet as it stands, enabling them to charge both users and content owners provision of content services. Such charging would position the telecoms operators as the gatekeepers for content, and erode the public service nature of the Internet   – if they are allowed to get away with it. The outcome of the vote will be a determinant of what they can, or cannot, do.

The European Parliament will vote on the Telecoms Regulation  (proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council  laying down measures concerning the European single market for electronic communications and to achieve a Connected Continent). On the specific issue of net neutrality, two options will be put before the European Parliament in full plenary session.

The Parliament will have to choose between a report that bans discrimination using traffic management, but stops short of a positive position on net neutrality; and a set of amendments that would build in a positive principle for net neutrality. It’s clear from today’s plenary debate,  that there has been considerable conflict in the corridors and meeting rooms, and that this net neutrality is  the issue that stands to divide the vote.

This is a first reading vote, so the outcome – whatever it is – could be challenged and overturned at a later date – but given the urgency  of the scheduling to fit it in before the European elections,  it is likely to be influential.

The  report by rapporteur Pilar Del Castillo was voted by her committee in mid-March. Mrs Del Castillo’s report is not the same as the draft law  originally put forward by the European Commission. Mrs Del Castillo has already put the knife to several of the Commission’s proposals. She also claims to have improved on certain proposals, such as the one on roaming.

On net neutrality,  she has made some concessions to the citizens advocacy lobby and to a centre-left coalition of the European Parliament that wants to see a positive provision on net neutrality enshrined in EU law. In respect of that particularly controversial issue, she has modified the definition of ‘specialised services’ and she has strengthened the rule on traffic management. However, there are still loopholes remaining in Mrs Del Castillo’s text.

The S&D, Liberal, and Green groups, led by the 2009 Telecoms Package rapporteur Catherine Trautmann,  have joined forces to produce an alternative proposal that would insert a principle of net neutrality into European law. The Trautmann proposal  would be a real ‘first’ for Europe and would help to protect the Internet as we know it from incursions by the broadband providers.  By default, a net neutrality principle  would help to protect that very precious of fundamental rights in EU law, namely the right to freedom of expression.

On the other hand, a lobbying letter from the telecoms industry group ETNO, suggests that Mrs Del Castillo has moved in a direction not to their liking.  The ETNO letter suggests that the Del Castillo report  will be strongly opposed by the telecoms companies, who fabricated the plan for the Regulation in the first place, in order to spike any chances of Europe deciding to enshrine a net neutrality principle.

Much will depend on the positions taken by the EPP and ECR groups. If the net neutrality amendments are rejected,  the issue then is which groups can support the report as a whole. It is entirely possible that the whole report is also rejected. That would mean that the European Commission would have to start again from scratch – and in my personal opinion, that is not necessarily a bad outcome.

This law was so badly drafted, lacking in analysis, consultation and impact assessment, (see New telecoms rules: EU Commission had no time to consult) so going back to the drawing board and doing it properly might be a good thing. There are others who will say that so many compromises were hard won, it would be good to adopt them, and try to move forward with this proposal.

This post originally appeared on the author’s IPtegrity blog on 2 April and is re-posted with permission and thanks. This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.