April 25, 2015

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Historic E.U. Net Neutrality Win Shows Maturing Digital Rights Advocacy

After a 5-year long campaign by European and U.S. digital rights NGOs, today the European Parliament turned a dubious Commission proposal on its head to safeguard the principle of net neutrality. It’s a historic win, and all over the news. It also shows how digital rights advocacy is maturing.

The legislative proposal and its amendments contain a clear definition of net neutrality and quite solid provisions. With the final text, as always, the devil will be in the details. For one, the enforcement provisions could have been stronger. Perhaps some national governments, such as The Netherlands where net neutrality has already been enshrined in law for some years now, will lobby for more discretion to enforce the rules on the national level.

Of course, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings: the E.U. Council (the relevant ministers of national governments) will debate the Parliament legislative text on 5/6 June 2014. Will it respect a democratic vote, or be influenced by the Telecoms lobby? History learns that industry lobbies are almost certain to leverage more power towards the E.U. Council, than citizens have with regard to their respective governments. Europe is often used as a proxy for politics that can’t be realized on a national level. Moreover, the May 2014 Parliament election comes before those negotiations in June, potentially changing the political dynamics: the current majority for net neutrality could change. So the jury is still out.

But what’s truly fascinating about the net neutrality vote, and perfect case study material, is how digital rights advocacy in Europe is maturing. A slick campaign was set up that got more people to call/fax/e-mail their representatives than back in the day with the historic no-vote on ACTA. That’s a second crucial point: ACTA was a no-vote, but here digital rights and consumer advocates were able to suggest meaningful legislative reform amidst intense political struggle. Expert amendments were suggested, a dubious proposal by the (Dutch) E.U. Commissioner — primarily interested in quick wins on roaming tariffs — delegitimized and the immensely powerful telecoms lobby were faced head-on. Quite nasty tactics by hostile E.U. Parliamentarians and lobbies were cleverly tackled. Unsurprisingly, and completely missing the point, even the child abuse card was played the night before the final vote. Until the last minute, digital rights groups — in a highly dispersed Europe and with the help of U.S. NGOs — have shown that they can play ball as one front, when it really matters.

We see this more often these days, and it should give rise to some opportunism on E.U. policymaking. Apart from ACTA and net neutrality, data protection, mandatory website blocking and data retention also come to mind. Digital rights advocacy has matured in the last five years. Sure, the web has turned public and private online life into a surveillance society — so why be optimistic? Because at the same time, it appears that the obscure Brussels lobbying arena feels the surveillance of the public more and more.¬† Of course, we’re nowhere near a transparent political process, but these are interesting times.

For now, it’s a historic win for digital rights in Europe, that may spur spill-over effects to the U.S. and other countries as well. Time to enjoy a beer and some sleep for those that did the heavy lifting, including MEPs Amelia Andersdottir,¬†Catherine Trautmann,¬†Marietje Schaake and Petra Kammerevert and organizations such as European Digital Rights, La Quadrature du Net and Bits of Freedom. Remember those names, you’ll be hearing them again in a not so distant fascinating future.

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