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The European net neutrality year 2015

In 2015 we experienced a great breakthrough in the net neutrality developments in Europe. Late November, European net neutrality rules were published in the Official Journal, after a long and winding legislative process. Furthermore, BEREC is now tasked to develop guidelines for the implementation of these rules, and an initial step of this work is taking place today.

By Frode Sørensen, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Communications Authority (Nkom)

The beginning

Back in September 2013, the European Commission proposed net neutrality rules in its Telecom Single Market Regulation. The Commission’s reasoning for the proposal was the traffic management investigation published by BEREC in 2012 which “showed that a significant number of end-users are affected by traffic management practices which block or slow down specific applications. These tendencies require clear rules at the Union level to maintain the open internet and to avoid fragmentation of the single market resulting from individual Member States' measures.”1

Comprehensive European legislative process

Based on the Commission’s initiative, parliamentarian committees and lobbying organizations worked hard to influence the details of the net neutrality rules in the proposed regulation. After extensive discussion in the committees of the European Parliament, the vote during the plenary meeting in April 2014 resulted in the adoption of several amendments that strengthened the net neutrality provisions.2

Next step was the weighing of the national interests within the Council of EU, who reached a compromise in March 2015. Finally, in June an agreement about European net neutrality rules was reached in the trilogue discussions between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. This legislative process culminates by formal approval by the Council and the Parliament followed by the publication in the Official Journal late November 2015.3

Transition for European net neutrality

The net neutrality regulation will apply from 30 April 2016 constituting a new era for net neutrality in Europe with regulatory tools to safeguard its implementation, and any national regulatory measures must eventually be aligned with the European legislation by the end of 2016.

The European net neutrality rules safeguard end users’ right to an open Internet and describe that operators shall treat all traffic equally when providing Internet access services. At the same time, operators may implement reasonable traffic management based on technical quality of service requirements. Blocking and throttling of content and applications shall not be allowed, unless for specific exceptional reasons. Finally, operators may offer services other than Internet access services (so-called specialized services) under certain conditions given in the regulation to avoid harm to the Internet access service.

Upcoming net neutrality guidelines

Commentators have expressed concerns that the European net neutrality regulation is not clear enough and may introduce uncertainties about the interpretation. As a means to ensure the clarity of the implementation of the rules, the regulation has laid down an obligation for BEREC to develop guidelines by 29 August 2016.

An initial step of this work is taking place this week, when BEREC meets with several stakeholder organizations covering Internet service providers, content & application providers as well as consumers, seeking their views on the understanding of the regulation. Questions that are discussed include reasonable traffic management, specialized services, Internet access speed and commercial practices like zero-rating.

BEREC has announced that it will launch a public consultation of the draft net neutrality guidelines following its June 2016 Plenary meeting. After taking comments received into account, final guidelines will be published late August. This is the prospect of a new European net neutrality year in 2016.

1European Commission (2013), Telecom Single Market Regulation
2European Parliament (2014), Plenary Session Press release
3Official Journal of the EU (2015), Regulation (EU) 2015/2120