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EU consumer groups, ISPs plead for net neutrality

As negotiations continue over an amendment to major EU telecoms reform, ISPs and consumer rights groups have called for web access to be a fundamental right
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

European consumer groups and ISPs are pressing EU politicians to pass legislation to guarantee users cannot be thrown off the internet.

Over the past few days, both the European Consumers' Organisation (Beuc) and the European ISP Association (Eurispa) have pleaded for Amendment 138/46 to be passed into law, saying that cutting off broadband service would violate affected consumers' fundamental rights.

"Citizens should not be cut-off from [the] internet without a fair trial," Beuc's deputy director general, Willemien Bax, said in a statement on Monday. "Consumers must not be treated as pirates or criminals. We are in the 21st century, and such draconian measures have no place in an open society."

The amendment is part of the Telecoms Package, a large collection of reforms to European telecom legislation, which was voted through by the European Parliament in May. It is designed to ensure net neutrality in Europe, as it would guarantee equal access to the internet for all users.

The amendment states that "no restriction may be imposed on the fundamental rights and freedoms of end-users, without a prior ruling by the judicial authorities, notably in accordance with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on freedom of expression and information, save when public security is threatened in which case the ruling may be subsequent".

However, the Council of Telecoms Ministers is opposed to the amendment, a conflict that has delayed the passage into law of the Telecoms Package. The council has said it will not pass the package if the amendment is included.

On Monday, consumer watchdog Beuc said that dropping the amendment would be "a betrayal to every single internet user". Bax said MEPs should "stick to their guns" during conciliation negotiations, the latest round of which is scheduled for Tuesday.

The amendment would make it impossible for governments to force ISPs to disconnect people from the internet for unlawfully sharing copyrighted material — an approach promoted by the French government's Hadopi law and also put forward in August by the UK business secretary, Lord Mandelson.

"People have rights that cannot and must not be overlooked for the sake of the music and film industry," Bax said. "We call on the MEPs and on [European Commission] president Barroso to keep their promises of before the election by guaranteeing consumer fundamental rights on the internet.

"It will be hard to believe anything any European politician ever says in the future, if empty promises continue to be made for the sake of political expediency."

On Friday, ISP industry association Eurispa also issued a statement backing the amendment's passage.

"We believe that unrestricted access to the internet is an integral part of fundamental freedoms, providing a secure business environment and protecting citizens' civil liberties," Eurispa said.

"Any restriction of an individual to those rights should only be taken following a prior judicial ruling. Only a court can guarantee a proportionate, balanced decision, respectful of the fundamental rights of information, privacy and communication."

The European Commission said in June that the amendment was unnecessary because each member state's laws would already make it impossible to cut off individuals' internet access without a judicial ruling.

However, Eurispa argued that, "being a matter of fundamental rights for European citizens and businesses, it would be unwise to give member states excessive scope regarding the application of the relevant rules. Otherwise, there is a considerable risk of varying and arbitrary implementation, the result of which would damage both citizens' rights and the single market".

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