Net Neutrality in the EU seemed like a topic of the past. Something we dealt with, secured and could turn our attention to other issues now. Two significant recent developments show that it remains a dynamic policy field and that we mustn’t forget about it. After all, we want an information infrastructure that allows all users to have equal access not only to Wikipedia and its sister projects, but also to all the citations and sources.
Bad news from the Commission
Very large telecoms companies have wanted to make very large online platforms pay for network use for a while. Now they seem to have found a like-minded EU Commissioner in the face of Margrethe Vestager. The argument of the Danish politician is a modern classic for the EU. It boils down to the fact that very large platforms are responsible for a bulk of the internet traffic, but according to telecoms companies are not paying their fair share to fund the infrastructure.
And while this might seem like just another fight between two very profitable industries with excellent lobbying structures at their disposal, it could actually undermine net neutrality. The aim of what telecoms companies are asking for here is to create a two-sided market: On the one hand, end customers pay for the internet connection, on the other hand, internet services might have to pay fees to reach users. The risk is that by developing this market some services will become more accessible than others.
A letter co-signed by 34 civil society organisations was sent to the Commission criticising their latest statements and outlining fears that such a move could lead to a tiered internet.
Good news from BEREC
On the other side, BEREC, the EU’s body of telecoms regulators, has updated its net neutrality guidelines. By doing so, it closed some loopholes and effectively banned zero rating of data for some applications not yet explicitly covered. So far, specific applications could be exempt from network providers’ data caps. The change was a result of a European Court of Justice’s ruling from 2021 that stated that zero-tariff options, which differentiate between types of internet traffic, violate Europe’s open internet rules.
Wikimedia’s History with Wikipedia Zero
Wikipedia Zero was a project by the Wikimedia Foundation to provide Wikipedia free of charge on mobile phones via zero-rating, particularly in developing markets. The objective of the program was to increase access to free knowledge, in particular without data-usage cost. The program has ended in 2018. Part of the reason is that data costs have become more affordable globally. Another important reason is that zero-access systems don’t allow users to research and investigate. Wikipedia doesn’t exist on its own, but cites and links to sources across the internet. These must be equally accessible to anyone.