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Telecommunications providers in the European Union will have to stop the practice of “zero rating,” where they bundle their Internet access with services whose use is exempted from customers’ data caps—data-intensive content-streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix are popular examples, as are Facebook and Wikipedia.
The EU’s highest court, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), effectively forbade zero rating in a landmark ruling handed down Tuesday morning. The ruling confirmed it is illegal to block or slow down traffic once the user’s data cap is reached, just because that traffic isn’t part of a zero-rating deal.
This was the first time the court had been asked to interpret the wording of the EU’s 2015 net-neutrality law—the term “net neutrality” refers to the principle of equal treatment for all the traffic that passes over operators’ networks.
At the time of the law’s passage, net-neutrality advocates were deeply concerned that loopholes would allow operators to get away with practices that prioritize some traffic over other traffic, for commercial rather than technical reasons.
Zero-rating was a particular worry, because the law did not specifically mention it. Therefore, it seemed operators might be able to get away with blocking or slowing down customers’ general Internet use once they reached their data caps, while still allowing favored services to run unimpeded.
The EU’s telecoms regulators decided in 2016 that the law’s terms technically allowed zero rating, as long as an assessment shows customers aren’t being steered away from services that compete with the bundled offer. Net-neutrality advocates took that as a victory, but it is only now that the CJEU has confirmed that zero rating is off the table.
And then some. The court didn’t just say it was illegal to block or slow down traffic just because it’s not part of a zero-rating deal—it said there was no need to assess the effects of such a policy on customers’ rights; just having the policy was bad enough.
“The requirements to protect Internet users’ rights and to treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner preclude an Internet access provider from favoring certain applications and services by means of packages enabling those applications and services to benefit from a ‘zero tariff’ and making the use of the other applications and services subject to measures blocking or slowing down traffic,” the court said in its ruling.
The case involved Telenor Hungary, a former subsidiary of the Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor. The Hungarian telecoms regulator had told Telenor to scrap two packages that included zero-rated services, but the operator appealed and the case ended up with the CJEU, which the Budapest High Court asked to interpret the EU law.
Telenor Hungary had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing. But net-neutrality advocates are ecstatic.
“We welcome this judgment,” said Maryant Fernandez, a senior digital policy officer at the …read more