European Union legislation on net neutrality is under threat, as Italy is seeking to water down a draft already adopted by the European Parliament, a digital rights group has warned.
Italy's proposals include removing the very definition of net neutrality, and allowing differential charging for services, according to preparatory documents for the Nov. 27 EU Council meeting of telecommunications ministers, at which the issue is due to be discussed.
The leaked information note and its annex were obtained by European digital rights group EDRi and show that Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council, has proposed that member states agree on a weakened form of net neutrality.
"These documents show that the Italian Presidency is now back-pedalling on meaningful net neutrality protections," the group said.
Member states' ambassadors in Brussels are discussing net neutrality on Friday, as they prepare the agenda for the Nov. 27 Council meeting, a Council official said. "They should decide what they will propose to the ministers," she said, adding that as talks were ongoing she couldn't say what the proposal will be.
The biggest gap in the amended proposals, according to EDRi, is that they fail to prohibit discrimination on the basis of billing.
"Allowing 'free' access to certain services and metered access to everything else is as much -- and as damaging -- an infringement of net neutrality and the fundamental right of freedom to impart information, as any blocking or filtering," it said, adding that if people have to pay extra to access a website or have to pay Internet companies to allow them to do so, the essence of the open Internet has been dismantled.
Other worries include the Italian presidency's proposal to remove key definitions from the text. In the document, the Italian presidency wrote: "Instead of a definition of net neutrality there could be a reference to the objective of net neutrality, e.g. in an explanatory recital, which would resolve the concerns that the definition might be at variance with the specific provisions."
But without meaningful and enforceable net neutrality provisions, EDRi said, the fundamental right to receive and impart information would be hindered.
The presidency also proposed to allow some forms of traffic management as long as they are transparent, non-discriminatory, proportionate and not anti-competitive. "Traffic management measures that block, slow down, alter, degrade or discriminate against specific content, applications or services, or specific classes thereof could bepermitted," in some scenarios, the document said.
That could be done for instance to "prevent the transmission of unsolicited emails", to "preserve the integrity and security of the network", to "prevent imminent network congestion", to "ensure high quality of voice communications" or following a court order or an order from another authority with the proper rights to do so.
The exceptional nature of congestion control should be clarified so as not to become the default, EDRi said.
"If adopted, the text would lack the much needed protections to prevent internet access providers from creating a new monopoly," EDRi said, adding that it would weaken citizens' rights and annul the strong provisions adopted by the European Parliament in April.
The Italian presidency's proposals aren't the only sign that European net neutrality could be overhauled. A document leaked last Friday showed that new European Commission is taking a fresh look at the long-planned overhaul of EU telecom legislation, possibly making fundamental changes to legislative proposals for strict net neutrality rules. A move that would be very welcome to telecom operators that are not a big fan of strict net neutrality rules because they said it would restrict their ability to innovate and invest in networks and services.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org