In response to the European Commission’s exploratory consultation on the future of the electronic communications sector and its infrastructure, ARTICLE 19 argues that imposing network fees threatens the rights of freedom of expression and access to information. We call on the European Commission to respect the principle of net neutrality and reject the ‘fair share’ proposal.
In February, the European Commission launched the so-called Connectivity Package: a series of initiatives aimed at the transformation of the connectivity sector in the European Union. Among the announced initiatives is the exploratory consultation through which the Commission plans to gather views about ‘how increasing demands for connectivity and technological advances may affect the future developments and needs’ to inform a vision for the future of the telecom sector.
At the heart of the discussed proposal is the idea that large content and application providers (CAPs), such as social media platforms or streaming services, should shoulder some of the costs of the infrastructural investments borne out by internet service providers (ISPs).
Similar initiatives have been discussed in the past. ARTICLE 19 has argued extensively that the proposed payment mechanisms would go against the principle of net neutrality, which is fundamental to the functioning of the open internet.
Net neutrality posits that there should be no discrimination in the treatment of internet traffic, based on the device, content, author, or the origin and/or destination of the content, service or application. In other words, users should be free to access all legal content online equally, without the interference from ISPs. As the role of the internet in everyday lives has increased exponentially, jeopardising net neutrality can have significant consequences for people’s ability to freely access information online.
In justifying their proposals for network fees, telecommunication companies claim that internet traffic is a burden that is disproportionately shouldered by them. In reality, it is the content created by CAPs that is one of the key drivers of users’ demand for telecom products, including new generations of cellular network technologies (such as 5G). These technologies, in addition to internet traffic, are the main drivers of revenue growth for the telecom industry.
Further, ARTICLE 19 argues that the proposal has clear implications for freedom of expression and other human rights in the EU. Internet connectivity is necessary for access to information online. It also directly impacts the exercise of other human rights, such as freedom of association, or the right to health. Adequate internet connectivity is not just an economic goal, but also a social, civil, and political one.
Infrastructure deployment and improvement is therefore a key element for guaranteeing this meaningful connectivity. However, the approach taken by the consultation privileges the largest telecommunication companies, while ignoring other models that can provide community-level connectivity.
Alternative network operators contribute significantly to the provision of last-mile services to people and communities in the EU. However, the current proposal, which demands that CAPs provide remuneration to the largest ISPs, will only increase the power of incumbent operators, further entrenching their dominant or gatekeeping position in the market, and squeezing out local, community-managed, or nonprofit networks.
Incumbent business interests should not take precedence over people’s right to freedom of expression and information. ARTICLE 19 urges the European Commission to reject further development of the proposal.