That Slovenia fought against watering-down of the Telecom Single Market directive (a.k.a. Single Digital Market) was for all intents and purposes the most surprising piece of information coming from this sorry little excuse for a country in the last ten days or so. Even more surprising than the decapitation of the bad-bank where the CEO and chief of the supervisory board were dismissed over excessive pay. And infinitely more surprising than the story of the NSA and German BND bulk-intercepting international calls from Slovenia between 2005 and 2008. Both of which will get written up here in due course. But first, this net neutrality thing.
You can read it up, but the nuts and bolts of it are fairly simple: either everyone gets to use the web under the same conditions in terms of speed, access and services provided or network operators get to decide which services or users get preferential treatment (for a price, of course) and which get to crowd with the rest of us sorry bastards on the slow end of the interwebz. Or, what could happen is that the network operators get to pick their favourite service(s) and charge less – or nothing at all – for their use, relegating every other competing service to the status of an also-ran. Point being that under the proposed Single Digital Market directive the telcos get to pick the winners and the losers.
This is about where and how you’ll get your news, for example. Or your porn. Not that there’s much difference, but still. On the neutral net, where telcos/network providers compete with one another with plans, prices and ease of access, you’re able to pick and choose between RTVSLO, BBC, Russia Today, NaturalNews.com (yuck) or even FoxNews. On the not-so-neutral net your provider will most likely limit you to a handful of news sites, at least one of them being their own. Everything else will either be available at a premium or at lower speeds. Or both. The same goes for porn. The neutral net brings you PornHub, Redtube or plain old /hc/ board on 4chan.org, depending on your fancy. The other web brings you your provider’s porn service. It is a sort of Rule 34a.
If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions. Provided you pay for it and we get to deliver it.
And would you really like your network provider to know exactly what sick turn-ons you have? Methinks not.
And this is just the way things are today. Imagine a couple of years from now, when the IoT takes off for real. You buy a net-enabled fridge telling you what’s missing and updating your shopping list. But on the not-neutral web your network operator gets to choose which brand of the fridge gets preferential treatment within its network or which on-line shops are available for such a device. Hell, it can even limit your online shopping experience, preventing you from getting the best deal out there. Or maybe it can charge you extra if your wifi-enabled car needs an update. The list goes on forever.
Also, this is about cats.
All of the above makes it all the more astounding that Slovenia actually took up the issue on the EU level. I mean, here we have arguably the single most important long-term policy issue since the introduction of the euro and this country actually wants to do something? Wow. Just wow. In fact, Slovenia and the Netherlands were out-voted on the issue, with Croatia and Greece abstaining, while the 24 remaining member states green-lighted the draft (page 13 of the link).
You see, the thing is that next to the Netherlands, Slovenia is the only EU member to have set net neutrality as a legal norm. More or less. In Slovenia at least the legislation was watered down via lobbying by the telcos, but not enough to prevent the first-ever rulings by AKOS, the comms watchdog, which in January fined the two largest mobile providers for providing zero-rating services. And now, as the year slowly draws to an end, the European Commission put forward a draft Single Digital Market directive which would have made these rulings next to impossible as it basically trades the much-hailed abolition of roaming charges (two years hence) for a two-speed Internet (most likely to commence in various forms immediately). Little wonder Slovenia and the Netherlands have problems with it since it directly undermines their national legislation, several orders of magnitude better than what the draft directive provides for.
At its most crudest, this is a case where a drop in profits in one segment of the industry is mitigated by a free-fire zone of surcharges in another segment. Not to mention the fact that the move will have massive repercussions far beyond the consumer sector. Limiting speed and/or access to information will impact education and research, creative industries will once again be divided into haves and have-nots and home will no longer be simply where the wi-fi is.
This, despite the name, will be anything but a single digital market.
The ball is now in the European Parliament’s court. Last year, the EP shot down a directive draft which – compared to the current one – was more than acceptable. But with Brussels packing more lobbyists than Washington D.C., one can never be sure of the final outcome. (Slighty OT: Here is a handy tool on lobbying stats, courtesy of Politico.eu).
Which is why a number of grass-roots initiatives sprang up all over the EU to, well, save the internet. In Slovenia, too, where media and the politicos have apparently finally started paying attention. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, but if the fate of the ACTA treaty a few years ago and the recent Safe-harbour ruling by the European Court are omens to go by, then this whole thing can still be overturned.
Because as it stands, for all the goodies it brings vis-a-vis mobile roaming, the TSM directive in fact heralds yet another social stratification. This time of a digital nature, ordained by the industry whose hey-day has long since passed.