It has been two-and-a-half years since net neutrality laws were enacted in the European Union — are they working?
Comprehensive new research by the Vienna-based nonprofit epicenter.works answers this question, examining if telecom companies are breaking net neutrality rules, how regulators are reacting, and how this affects internet users across the continent. The report is titled The Net Neutrality Situation in the EU: Evaluation of the First Two Years of Enforcement.
The report focuses particularly on the practice of zero-rating — telecom companies providing special treatment to certain online services or applications by pricing those applications differently. In India and Canada, zero-rating is considered a clear violation, but the European rules foresee a case-by-case assessment by national telecom regulators. The study includes a complete survey of all zero-rating offers in Europe and the applications and services that benefit from them.
The 60-page report draws on several data sets, including Internet Access Service (IAS) pricing schemes, National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NRA) annual reports, member states’ penalty provisions for net neutrality infringements, and more. When analysed together, the data paints a vivid picture of the flawed state of net neutrality in the EU:
“During the first two-and-a-half years of the European net neutrality rules being in force, zero-rating has spread into all but two EU countries,”
says Thomas Lohninger, Executive Director of epicenter.works.
“During this spread, regulators have systematically refrained to intervene against — or even formally assess — these practices.”
Among the report’s key findings are:
- Member states have wildly different approaches to enforcement. Some countries fine telecom companies nine-digit Euro amounts for violations (e.g. the Netherlands and the UK), while others fine companies only four-digit Euro amounts (e.g. Estonia). Furthermore, some countries still have not put penalty provisions on the books (e.g. Ireland and Portugal).
- Where telecoms offer zero-rating, data prices increase for EU consumers. Research found that in markets with zero-rating practices, the price of data increased 2% year-over-year. In markets without zero-rating practices, the price of data decreased 8% year-over-year. Consumers who think zero-rating means they get something for free are in fact paying more for limited access to the internet.
- Zero-rating erodes user privacy. In order to implement zero-rating, telecom companies must monitor users' behaviour via privacy-intrusive detection methods, like deep packet inspection technology. That level of control over the network goes against the core of the net neutrality principle.
- Zero-rating has a negative impact on the EU’s Digital Single Market. The study is accompanied by a complete survey of all zero-rating practices in Europe and the applications and services that participate in these offers. Among the top 20 applications that benefit from zero-rating, only three are from Europe. Applications and services from EU countries other than the provider's place of business are rarely zero-rated.
- Telecom companies are not being transparent. Despite BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) rules requiring telecom companies to provide at least a minimum level of transparency on internet speeds, companies are not publishing that information and regulators are turning a blind eye.