The European Parliament has voted through a massive tranche of reforms for the European telecommunications sector, including a significant net-neutrality amendment.
The 'Telecoms Package' of laws was voted into force on Wednesday with a large majority, and must now be ratified by the Council of Telecoms Ministers. The vote marks the first time that internet access has been recognised in European law as a fundamental right on a par with freedom of expression.
The legislation also compels European telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) to notify their customers of any personal data breaches, the first time they have been required to do so.
"I welcome the European Parliament's strong endorsement of the reform of the EU telecoms rules," Viviane Reding, Europe's commissioner for telecoms and IT, said in a European Commission statement. "Now the ball is in the court of the Council of Telecoms Ministers to decide whether or not to accept this package of reforms."
The package introduces a range of new telecoms measures. It brings in new rules to ensure that European consumers who want to change their fixed-line or mobile operator can do so in one working day. In addition, spectrum refarming — where 3G services can be used in what is currently 2G radio spectrum — is also to be allowed, so as to allow a faster rollout of high-speed mobile internet services.
It also establishes a new pan-European telecoms authority (the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, or Berec), which will supersede the less formally arranged European Regulators Group.
On the net-neutrality issue, the Commission said in its statement that national telecoms regulators would be able to set minimum quality levels of internet-access services, so as to dissuade ISPs from degrading the quality of certain services through traffic management.
"In addition, thanks to the new transparency requirements, consumers will be informed – even before signing a contract — about the nature of the service to which they are subscribing, including traffic management techniques and their impact on service quality, as well as any other limitations (such as bandwidth caps or available connection speed)," the Commission said.
The Commission specifically referred to these new rules as being designed to promote "net neutrality" and "net freedoms" for European citizens. The idea of net neutrality, or the equality of services on the internet, has traditionally been seen as an American issue, due to more limited competition in the US ISP market.
Recognising internet access as a fundamental right, the Commission said that "any measures taken regarding access to or use of services and applications through electronic communications networks must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including in relation to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and education, as well as due process".
The final word in any disputes regarding internet access must rest with a judicial authority, the Commission added.
The net-neutrality aspects of the Telecoms Package were included in the heavily contested amendment 138/46, which was introduced shortly before Wednesday's vote. This amendment is still contested by the Council of Telecoms Ministers.
The digital rights campaigning group La Quadrature du Net said in a statement on Wednesday that the voting through of the Telecoms Package, including amendment 138/46, was "the final blow against three-strikes laws such as Nicolas Sarkozy's Hadopi bill, which are explicitly banned". Sarkozy's bill, which sought to let ISPs disconnect users suspected of illegal file-sharing, was narrowly defeated in the French parliament in April.
On the question of data-breach notification, the new laws mean communications providers will be obliged to inform the authorities and their customers about security breaches affecting their personal data, the Commission said.
"This will increase the incentives for better protection of personal data by providers of communications networks and services," the Commission said. "In addition, the rules concerning privacy and data protection are strengthened, eg on the use of 'cookies' and similar devices."
The Commission said the measures will help internet users become better informed about what happens to their personal data and will make it easier for them to control what happens to their personal details.
ISPs are also to be given the right to take legal action against spammers, providing that the Council of Telecoms Ministers approves the package when it convenes in June.