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European Regulators Just Stopped Facebook, Google and Big Telecoms’ Net Neutrality Violations

On Wednesday, European top telecom regulator BEREC, which consists of the national telecom regulators from across the EU, published its revised net neutrality guidelines. The guidelines now prohibit broadband providers’ zero-rating offers that benefit select apps or categories of apps, whether they do so for free or require apps to pay to be included. 

Zero-rating is a practice where a carrier does not count some online activity against a customer’s monthly data cap. For example, many European carriers offer plans that don't count the data you use on Facebook or WhatsApp against your data cap.

BEREC’s previous net neutrality guidelines did not categorically ban selective zero-rating programs or category-based ones that, e.g., offer to zero-rate all music or video apps. So carriers across the EU took advantage and collectively launched hundreds of zero-rating programs. These often exempted the carriers’ own services and disproportionately benefited big platforms like Apple, Google, and Facebook, while small companies and European startups were left out.

BEREC has now banned those.

Here is my statement:

“BEREC’s new net neutrality guidelines are a great win for Europeans who will get more data to use as they choose, and they give a big, much-needed boost to online competition.

Despite intense lobbying from big carriers and giant platforms, BEREC voted to clearly ban zero-rating offers that benefit select apps or categories of apps by exempting them from people's monthly data caps. The ban applies whether the app pays to be included or not, closing a loophole in the draft guidelines.

This is good news for Internet users. When harmful zero-rating plans are banned, users get much more data for the same price. Carriers are no longer able to limit how people can use their data or push them to use apps from the dominant platforms.

We just saw this in Germany. After the German regulator banned Deutsche Telekom’s and Vodafone’s discriminatory zero-rating plans, Vodafone gave affected customers up to 25% more data for the same price. Earlier this month, Deutsche Telekom boosted some affected customers’ monthly data volume from 24GB to 40GB for the same price.

Additionally, smaller apps and websites no longer have to fight to be included in these kinds of zero-rating plans and can compete with the giant platforms on an equal footing.

BEREC revised its guidelines after the European Court of Justice held in September 2021 that discriminatory zero-rating plans violated net neutrality. The court ruled that such plans violated the net neutrality law’s requirement to treat all data equally, and that it did not matter whether the different treatment was technical, such as a fast lane, or economic, like selective zero-rating.

The guidelines wisely allow carriers to offer non-discriminatory zero-rating programs that treat all data the same. Your carrier can still not count data usage against your cap at certain times of day or as a promotion; it just can’t force you to use that data on a specific site. Carriers in other countries that have banned discriminatory zero-rating have innovated with offers such as unmetered data from midnight to 6 a.m. or letting users choose hours per month where their data usage is uncounted.

I expect that carriers across the EU will soon end their discriminatory zero-rating plans and offer customers of those plans significantly more data for the same price.”

Barbara van Schewick is one of the world’s leading experts on net neutrality, a professor at Stanford Law School, and the director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

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