By Kevin J. O’brien
Sunday, March 8, 2009
BERLIN: As European lawmakers debate how to keep access to the Internet free and equal – so-called network neutrality – they are being bombarded, not unsurprisingly, by lobbyists.
But the corporate envoys roaming the halls of Brussels, trying to make their case, more often than not do not represent the Continent’s myriad telecommunications and Internet companies, but rather those from the United States.
As the reputation of Europe grows as the world’s technology regulator, representatives in a conflict that pits the AT&Ts and Verizons against the Googles and Yahoos are attempting to shape European law in the hopes that U.S. regulators will follow suit.
“The U.S. companies see the outcome of the fight in Europe as key,” said Jeremie Zimmermann, a lobbyist for La Quadrature du Net,an Internet advocacy group based in Paris. “Each side is hoping to score points on the issue here so they can take it back to the States to influence the outcome there.”
Net neutrality, which La Quadrature supports, is a proposal backed by some free-speech advocates and Internet businesses that seeks to bar network operators from filtering Internet traffic. Operators say that basic traffic management is necessary to balance the soaring demand for bandwidth from video and popular Web sites.
For consumers in Europe and the United States, the outcome of the debate could influence whether they will continue to be able to download unlimited amounts of data using their flat rate broadband plans or will be forced to pay higher rates related to the amount of data they download.
The outcome could also legally empower operators to single out users of file-sharing software that could be used for illegal downloading.
During the past two months, lobbyists for the U.S. operators and Internet businesses have sent letters to European Union lawmakers promoting their competing legislative agendas, according to copies of the letters obtained by the International Herald Tribune.
Lobbyists for AT&T and Google have also discussed the issue – and in one case directly debated it – in forums held in Brussels for lawmakers and other policy makers.
The question before lawmakers – in Europe at the moment and in the United States probably some time this year – is how to draw the line between the need for networks to manage data to assure smooth service and the deliberate filtering that aims at popular Web sites, the content of downloads or high-volume users. Such filtering could lead to access fees on Internet businesses and, according to some free speech advocates, de facto censorship.
The debate is tied to a routine proposal working its way through the European Parliament to update minimum service requirements for EU network operators. When Parliament approved the package of requirements, known as the universal services directive, on first reading in September, lawmakers on opposite sides were able to insert language that both authorized and blocked a net neutrality mandate.
The lack of clarity touched off a vigorous lobbying battle in Brussels by U.S. businesses on both sides of the issue, in some cases supported by European companies, including Vodafone, Ericsson and VirginMedia, and free-speech advocates.
In general, operators like AT&T and Verizon oppose neutrality mandates, concerned that they might hinder the companies’ ability to manage data and guarantee quality service. Internet businesses, which rely on the Web for free delivery of content and services, are seeking legal guarantees to prevent operators from charging them for access.
The U.S. approach to net neutrality has been shaped largely by the Federal Communications Commission, which in August drew up a set of four neutrality principles as it sanctioned a cable broadband operator, Comcast, for slowing the speed of broadband service to high-volume users.
Comcast is appealing the decision in Washington. The outcome of the case is expected this year and could be a major test of network neutrality in the United States, said Markham Erickson, a lawyer for the Open Internet Society, an advocacy group in Washington.
In the meantime, the lobbying focus has shifted temporarily to Belgium, where European lawmakers are closer to making a decision. Two committees are expected to vote on the legislation March 31, before a final vote by the full Parliament on April 22. The plan would also need to be approved by EU telecom-munications ministers.
Lobbying by U.S. businesses in Brussels is not unusual. More than 30 U.S. companies like Pfizer, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Philip Morris, Westinghouse and Kraft Foods employ lobbyists in Brussels, according to the European Parliament. Foreign countries and businesses also hire lobbyists to work in Washington.
But most of the time, lobbying by foreign entities tends to be discreet.
That has not been the case in the debate over network neutrality, where the high commercial stakes for operators and Internet companies have pushed competing U.S. commercial interests to the forefront.
In Brussels on Feb. 10, Leonard Cali, the director of AT&T’s federal regulatory group, participated in a panel discussion on the issue by a European small-business group.
On Feb. 19, Simon Hampton, a Google lobbyist, spoke to 200 people about Internet control, at an event in Brussels sponsored by the European Green Party.
On Feb. 26, Sebastian Mueller,also a Google lobbyist, debated Karim Lesina, an AT&T lobbyist, on network neutrality in a closed-door meeting of newspaper and magazine publishers. Simon Summers, an organizer, said the lobbyists and organizers wanted to hold the debate in private. No journalists were invited, but the meeting was attended by representatives of France TĂ©lĂ©com, TelefĂłnica, Sony Pictures, Skype and LagardĂ¨re, as well as representatives of the European cable industry and lawmakers.
Lobbyists for Google and Verizon declined to comment for this article. Lobbyists for Yahoo and eBay did not respond to requests for interviews. Lesina, the AT&T lobbyist, declined an interview request but his employer, the largest carrier in the United States, issued a statement that said the company believed “decision makers in Brussels are rightly interested in policies that will promote investment in broadband and next-generation networks.”
Besides speaking appearances, U.S. companies have blanketed European lawmakers with detailed suggestions on how to shape the legislation.
AT&T, Verizon, the equipment maker Cisco and the European companies Liberty Global, Vodafone, Ericsson, VirginMedia and 3, an operator owned by Hutchison Whampoa, distributed a joint letter in February asking lawmakers to eliminate any neutrality mandate from the legislation.
“Proposals to mandate quality of service levels or require nondiscriminatory treatment of network traffic would not only adversely impact the quality of service received by consumers today, but it would also reduce future innovation and consumer choice,” the letter said.
Not true, according to a response letter circulated among lawmakers by Yahoo; eBay; Skype, which is eBay’s Internet phone unit; Google; and YouTube, which is owned by Google. The Internet companies offered lawmakers amendments that would give EU regulators the power to investigate and penalize operators for anticompetitive network management.
“Keeping the Internet open is about allowing innovation and ensuring an ecosystem where new ideas can succeed and new business models can flourish on their own merits,” the letter stated.
One longtime Brussels policy analyst said she had never observed such concerted U.S. lobbying.
“I’ve never seen this level of lobbying before by American companies in Brussels,” said Laurence Vandewalle, a technology adviser to the European Green Party since 1997. Referring to AT&T and Verizon, she added: “They want European Parliament to take a position against net neutrality in order to sell it in the U.S.”
European lawmakers remain split on the issue. Catherine Trautmann, a French legislator representing one of the prevailing camps, has drafted amendments to create an explicit neutrality obligation and give regulators the power to monitor operators’ behavior. Malcolm Harbour, a British lawmaker representing the other camp, is proposing that operators publicly disclose their network management practices, but be spared from new regulation.
Richard Allan, Cisco’s head of European regulatory affairs, said lawmakers were likely to let network operators continue to use reasonable management practices like unclogging traffic bottlenecks when necessary. “There are lobbies in favor of broader network neutrality provisions, but I don’t believe these voices represent the mainstream,” Allan said.
With more than 200 network operators in Europe, compared with just five major broadband and four cable operators in the United States, the danger that one operator could filter Internet traffic for commercial gain is low, said Manuel Kohnstamm, director of public affairs at Liberty Global, a cable TV operator with 12 million customers in 11 countries.
“This is an issue that has been to an extent exported from the States,” Kohnstamm said.
The European antitrust structure, which is more aggressive than in the United States, has made it the preferred forum for the technology industry to take complaints. Microsoft and Intel, among other companies, have found the antitrust climate much tougher on the Continent than in the United States.
European lawmakers may postpone a decision until after parliamentary elections in June, one lobbyist said.
“It is unclear what the outcome will be,” said Markus Beckedahl, a lobbyist for the Working Group on Data Retention, an advocacy group based in Berlin that has lobbied in Brussels for network neutrality. “There is still a lot of dissension and this whole debate could be pushed off.”
Â© 2009 International Herald Tribune
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