The U.K. and France Are Thumbing Their Noses at the U.S. Over Net Neutrality Repeal

January 19, 2018, 10:49 AM UTC

While efforts to revive net neutrality in the United States continue—by way of states suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and senators trying to overturn the FCC’s December repeal—two European countries have thumbed their noses at the U.S. by reaffirming their commitment to the principle.

As part of a wide-ranging agreement to strengthen links in the tech sector, the U.K. and France said Friday: “[Our] industrial strategies highlight the role that digital technology will play in the economy of the future. In this context, we wish to restate our commitment and support for the principle of net neutrality, which promotes a free and open internet.”

The countries said they would “make sure users can access websites without internet service providers favoring or blocking particular sites,” according to a statement from the British culture ministry.

This is largely a restatement of the obvious. A regulation came into effect across the European Union in 2016 that mandates net neutrality across the bloc and, unlike the now-stricken U.S. net-neutrality rule that was introduced under the Obama administration, the EU’s law won’t be going anywhere for a long time.

That suggests the statement was partly a jab at the U.S. and a message to European tech firms that they’re on safer ground in France and the U.K. However, it also carries a lot of significance for the U.K., which is preparing to leave the EU.

When Brexit happens next year, the EU’s net neutrality regulation will no longer apply in the U.K. So Friday’s statement indicates that the country will maintain the principle nonetheless. What that means in practice—whether there will be loopholes, and how well net neutrality will be enforced—remains to be seen.

The EU’s net neutrality law already has one significant loophole: it permits the practice of “zero rating,” where internet service providers can exempt particular services from a customer’s data cap. European telecoms regulators say they will monitor the situation to ensure zero-rating offers don’t give an unfair advantage to particular sites and services, but the practice is nonetheless a form of net neutrality infringement.

In their Friday statement, the British and French culture ministers said they would establish a “digital conference” this year to “foster cross-Channel collaboration between academics, industry and government.” The conference will cover topics such as AI, cybersecurity and digital government.

The statement came as French president Emmanuel Macron made his first state visit to the U.K.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, used the occasion to propose the construction of a literal, 22-mile bridge across the English Channel. According to a Guardian report, Macron is “understood to have responded positively.”

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