Here’s Why Europe’s Net Neutrality Advocates Are Celebrating

August 30, 2016, 2:59 PM UTC
Belgium, Brussels, European Commission, European flags at Berlaymont building
Photograph by Getty Images

Europe’s telecommunications regulators have finalized their guidelines for applying the bloc’s new net neutrality rules—and net neutrality advocates are claiming a major victory.

The rules were themselves finalized last year, but many saw wiggle-room in how they might be applied.

For example, some critics said they would allow telecoms operators to give certain Internet services special treatment in order to maximize profits—precisely what net neutrality should be outlawing. The legislation also did not directly address the practice of zero-rating, where operators offer free access to particular services while charging for the data used by others.

Following what turned out to be an epic six-week consultation on draft guidelines, the association of European telecoms regulators, BEREC, issued the final guidelines on Tuesday.

A whopping 480,000 contributions came in during the consultation, largely from civil society groups such as the Save The Internet coalition. That’s a record number for any BEREC consultation, and the net neutrality advocates seem to have won the day.

Operators won’t be able to exempt zero-rated services from their data caps—once a customer hits that cap, it won’t be possible to keep Facebook (FB) or Spotify (to use two common, zero-rating examples) running for free.

Zero-rated services will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but the regulators will frown on anything that steers people away from competitive services—which is surely the whole point of zero rating.

Carriers won’t be able to stop or degrade a customer’s mobile data connection when she is tethering her laptop to her phone. Regulators will keep a close eye on what the operators claim are specialized services to ensure they aren’t just trying to play favorites with services that could run alongside everything else online without a hitch.

Examples of legitimate specialized services will include voice-over-LTE (4G), operators’ cable-rivaling linear Internet TV services, and remote health applications.

“Internet wins,” read a Save The Internet statement on Tuesday. “BEREC’s final guidelines…offer some of the strongest net neutrality protections we could wish for. So long as these new rules are properly enforced by national telecom regulators, they represent a resounding victory for net neutrality.”

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The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) also welcomed the final guidelines, particularly the restrictions on zero rating.

“To restrict zero-rating is necessary to avoid that specific services are privileged at the expense of more innovative newcomers,” said BEUC director general Monique Goyens in a statement. “Consumers might be happy to continue using Facebook even if they hit their subscription limit. But in the long run it will play against them because it prevents competitors from entering the market.”

The World Wide Web Foundation, which has also campaigned for the net neutrality rules to be strongly applied, said it was broadly happy with the result—apart from some “gray areas.”

“At first glance, these guidelines seem to deliver what half a million citizens in Europe demanded throughout the consultation process—an open Internet that can deliver opportunity for all,” said foundation CEO Anne Jellema in a statement.

Jellema went on to note the intense lobbying from the telecoms industry throughout the whole legislative process.

“As the baton for safeguarding net neutrality now passes to national regulators, we urge them to monitor closely the remaining grey areas and potential loopholes,” she said. “These include close assessments of zero-rating programs to ensure important rights are not being violated.”

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Julia Reda, the sole Pirate Party member of the European Parliament, declared “victory for civil society, whose relentless involvement secured the principles of a free and open Internet in Europe.”

“By demanding strong net neutrality in record numbers, Europeans managed to overcome massive lobbying by the telecom industry and narrowly avert a catastrophe for the internet,” the German politician said in a statement.

Reda also took a dig at the digital commissioner Günther Oettinger (also a German) by implying that he had tried to include loopholes for “big corporate interests.” She said BEREC had “defused most of the risks left in the legislation by the other EU institutions.”

Oettinger rather passive-aggressively responded on Twitter by remarking that “success has many fathers,” continuing on to say, “I should correct myself. It should be, ‘Success has many mothers.'”

As for the other side of the argument, the U.S.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an anti-regulation lobby group, said BEREC’s guidelines were a “mixed bag.”

ITIF telecommunications policy analyst Doug Brake tells Fortune that it was good that zero rating, traffic prioritization, and specialized services weren’t being banned outright, but the restrictions on these practices were overly proscriptive.

“To my mind it’s like we should focus on a more antitrust base of whether these practices harm competition or consumers,” Brake says. “The guidelines are unnecessarily proscriptive. They could have allowed a bit more freedom to experiment with specialized services and zero rating.”

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