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An Open Internet? The Court of Justice of the European Union between Network Neutrality and Zero Rating

ECJ (Grand Chamber) 15 September 2020, Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, Telenor Magyarország Zrt v Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság Elnöke

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 October 2021

Marta Maroni*
Affiliation:
Research Fellow at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, and member of the Legal Tech Lab, Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki.

Abstract

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Type
Case Notes
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of European Constitutional Law Review

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Footnotes

I am particularly endebted to Dennis Brouwer who has commented on the paper and generously discussed the case with me. I would also like to thank Suvi Sankari and Tuomas Ojanen for their comments on an early draft of this paper and the University of Helsinki Legal Tech Lab for engaging with me on the topic of network neutrality. Also, this note has benefited from the constructive comments of the anonymous reviewer and the editors of the journal. This research has received financial support from Niilo Helanderin säätiö and these Academy of Finland projects: AlgoT -Potential and Boundaries of Algorithmic Transparency (decision n 324116) and POP - Is this Public or Private? (decision n 321995). The usual disclaimers apply.

References

1 Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 November 2015 laying down measures concerning open internet access and amending Directive 2002/22/EC on universal service and users’ rights relating to electronic communications networks and services and Regulation (EU) No 531/2012 on roaming on public mobile communications networks within the Union. More properly, what the EU introduced is a network neutrality regulation, not an open Internet one. Although network neutrality is essential for maintaining the openness of the Internet, ensuring openness requires looking at the practices of the various actors behind the functioning of the Internet.

2 ECJ 15 September 2020, Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, Telenor Magyarország Zrt v Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság Elnöke ECLI:EU:C:2020:708.

3 The case deals with a particular zero-rating practice, the one which zero-rates applications which offer different services (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp), as opposed to zero-rating which does not count data consumption of the same category of applications (e.g. all social media applications): see BEREC, Guidelines on the Implementation of the Open Internet Regulation (BoR (20) 112, 11 June 2020) (the one from 2020), paras 40-43; and D. Brouwer, ‘Zero-rating and net neutrality in the European Union: What legal approach should the EU legislator adopt with respect to zero-rating offers where applications do not count towards the data cap of the consumer?’ (Master’s Thesis, Tilburg University, 2015).

4 M. Ziewitz and I. Brown, ‘A prehistory of internet governance’, in I. Brown (ed.), Research Handbook on Governance of the Internet (Edward Elgar 2013) p. 19.

5 See also the seminal work on network neutrality by Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation (MIT Press 2010).

6 Ziewitz and Brown, supra n. 4, p. 15.

7 This paper uses the term ‘ISP’ because this is the term that is generally deployed when discussing network neutrality. Also, the BEREC Guidelines uses the term ‘ISP’ to refer to providers of internet access services: BEREC Guidelines, supra n. 3. Nonetheless the Regulation uses the term ‘providers of internet access services’. To be sure, para. 4 of the Regulation states that ‘an internet access service provides access to the internet, and in principle to all the end-points thereof, irrespective of the network technology and terminal equipment used by end-users’. Technically speaking, Internet service providers are ones which ‘can offer both an electronic communications service, such as access to the internet, and services not covered by this Directive, such as the provision of web-based and not communications-related content’: see Council Directive 2018/1972 establishing the European Electronic Communications Code [2018] OJ L321/36, para. 10.

8 See M. Carr, US Power and the Internet in International Relations: The Irony of the Information Age (Palgrave 2016) p. 57.

9 B. van Schewick, ‘Network Neutrality and Zero rating’ Report filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) along with an ex parte letter 19 February 2015, p. 1.

10 Digital markets Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, ‘Investigation of Competition in Digital Market’ (US 2020) ⟨https://judiciary.house.gov/uploadedfiles/competition_in_digital_markets.pdf?utm_campaign=4493-519⟩, visited 9 October 2021.

11 Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra n. 1.

12 L.C. Audibert and A.D. Murray, ‘A Principled Approach to Network Neutrality’, 13(2) SCRIPTed (2016) p. 118.

13 ‘Zero-rating’ is when an ISP applies a price of zero to the data traffic associated with a particular application or class of applications: seewww.berec.europa.eu/eng/netneutrality/zero_rating/⟩, visited 9 October 2021.

14 See B. van Schewick, ‘B.T-Mobile’s Binge on Violates Key Net Neutrality Principles’ (2016) ⟨https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/downloads/vanSchewick-2016-Binge-On-Report.pdf⟩, visited 9 October 2021 The BEREC Guidelines also acknowledge that commercial conditions or practices influence end users’ choice: see BEREC Guidelines, supra n. 3, paras. 39 and 48. Marc Peeters discusses how in the Netherlands, Bits of Freedom challenged the Court’s decision in Autoriteit Consument en Markt, in which it refused to take action against two mobile companies’ zero-rating practices. In the words of Peeters, one of Bits of Freedom’s arguments was that zero-rating provides ‘an artificial incentive to choose only or mostly for services that are zero-rated, to the determent of other services’. However, the Dutch court has not upheld a categorical ban on zero-rating because it would have stood against the EU Regulation: M. Peeters, ‘EU Net Neutrality: Harmonised Enforcement and Judicial Review’, 2 Tijdschrift voor Internetrecht (2019) p. 62 at p. 65.

15 See Art. 3(3).

16 The Dutch approach initially regarded zero-rating as being in contrast to the scope of the Network Neutrality Regulation itself: see Peeters, supra n. 14; Brouwer, supra n. 3.

17 BEREC Guidelines, supra n. 3.

18 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2.

19 Lindroos-Hovinheimo distinguishes between two types of cases, definitional cases and balancing cases, in which the Court recognises the need to balance fundamental rights: see S. Lindroos-Hovinheimo, ‘Who Controls Our Data? The Legal Reasoning of the European Court Of Justice In Wirtschaftsakademie Schleswig-Holstein And Tietosuojavaltuutettu V Jehovan Todistajat’, 28(2) Information & Communications Technology Law (2019) p. 225 and Private Selves: Legal Personhood in European Privacy Protection (Cambridge University Press 2021) p. 14.

20 See van Schewick, supra n. 9. Several scholars have provided an analysis of the relationship between fundamental rights and network neutrality: see L. Belli and M. van Bergen, Protecting Human Rights through Network Neutrality (Council of Europe, Steering Committee on Media and Information Society 2013); Audibert and Murray supra n. 12.

21 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, paras. 10-11, 20.

22 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, paras. 9-11.

23 Art. 3, Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra n. 1.

24 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, para. 15.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., para. 20.

27 Ibid., paras. 20-21.

28 Opinion of Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona, 4 March 2020, Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19 Telenor Magyarország Zrt v Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság Elnöke ECLI:EU:C:2020:154

29 Ibid., paras. 27-30.

30 Ibid., para. 37.

31 Ibid., para. 49.

32 The practice of slowing down negatively affects the experience of using the application.

33 Ibid., para. 55.

34 Ibid., para. 56.

35 Art. 3(2) of Regulation 2015/2120, supra n. 1, quoted in ibid., para. 57.

36 Opinion, supra n. 28, para. 64.

37 Ibid., para. 68.

38 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, para. 27.

39 Ibid., paras. 22-27.

40 Ibid., paras. 32-36.

41 Ibid., paras. 36-43.

42 Ibid., paras. 43-46.

43 Ibid., para. 27.

44 Ibid., para. 24.

45 Ibid., para. 25.

46 Ibid., para. 25.

47 Ibid., para. 33.

48 Ibid., para. 34.

49 Ibid., para. 37 (italics added).

50 Ibid., para. 38 (italics added).

51 Ibid., para. 44.

52 Ibid., para. 45.

53 Ibid., para. 49.

54 K. Maniadaki, ‘Net Neutrality Regulation in the EU: Competition And Beyond’, 10(7) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice (2019) p. 479 at p. 485.

55 On these and the following points see C.T. Marsden, Network Neutrality (Manchester University Press 2017) p. 116.

56 Ibid.

57 M. Horten, The Closing of the Net (Polity 2016) p. 86.

58 BEREC Guidelines, supra n. 3, para. 41.

59 See, for example, the Access Now submission to the public consultation on draft BEREC Guidelines on the implementation of Open Internet Regulation (BoR PC10 (19) 27, 28 November 2019).

60 Barbara van Schewick comprehensively details how this type of zero-rating still harms innovation and freedom of expression. Zero-rating of all applications in a class allows ISPs to become the gatekeepers of the Internet as they select and allow applications in the program. Preventing ISPs from acting as gatekeepers is amongst the goal of the Regulation which aims to maintain an open Internet. Further, this kind of program requires applications to actively seek to be zero-rated, which can be particularly burdensome for start-ups: see B van Schewick, ‘Comments on BEREC Guidelines on the Implementation by National Regulators of European Net Neutrality Rules, BoR (16) 94’ (BoR PC 01 (16) 106, 18 July 2016).

61 The Dutch legislation initially considered zero-rating to be contrary to Art. 3(3) of Regulation (EU) 2015/2120: see Brouwer, supra n. 3; N. Van Eijk, ‘Does net neutrality work? The Dutch case’(27th European Regional Conference of the International Telecommunications Society (ITS): ‘The Evolution of the North-South Telecommunications Divide: The Role for Europe’, Cambridge, UK, September 2016) ⟨https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/148715/1/van-Eijk.pdf⟩, visited 9 October 2021.

62 My thanks to Dennis Brouwer for this point.

63 van Schewick supra n. 9.

64 See Maniadaki, supra n. 54.

65 van Schewick, supra n. 9, p. 2.

66 See recital 7 of Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra n. 1.

67 For example, Maniadaki highlights that discrimination in the context of Network neutrality ‘may refer to the differentiated technical treatment of online traffic…’: Maniadaki, supra n. 54. p 1

68 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, para. 2.

69 L. Belli, ‘End-to-End, Net Neutrality and Human Rights’, in L. Belli and P. De Filippi (eds), Net Neutrality Compendium (Springer 2016); L. Belli, ‘Net Neutrality, Zero Rating and the Minitelisation of The Internet’, 2 Journal of Cyber Policy (2016) p. 96.

70 T. Ojanen, ‘Privacy Is More Than Just a Seven-Letter Word: The Court of Justice of the European Union Sets Constitutional Limits on Mass Surveillance: Court of Justice of the European Union, Decision of 8 April 2014 in Joined Cases C-293/12 and C-594/12, Digital Rights Ireland and Seitlinger and Others’, 10(3) EuConst (2014) p. 528 at p. 529.

71 L. DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale University Press 2014).

72 Judgment, supra n. 2, paras. 41 and 46.

73 E. Brogi et al., Monitoring media pluralism in the digital era : application of the Media Pluralism Monitor 2020 in the European Union, Albania and Turkey in the years 2018-2019 (Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) Policy Report 2020) p. 48.

74 N. Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Polity 2016).

75 There are two main effects, known as echo-chamber and filter bubble.

76 Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra n. 1, para. 2.

77 Directive 2000/31/EC ‘Directive on electronic commerce’, Art. 12.

78 ECJ 12 July 2011, Case C-324/09, L’Oréal SA and Others v eBay International AG and Others ECLI:EU:C:2011:474, para. 119.

79 Directive 2000/31/EC ‘Directive on electronic commerce’, recital 42.

80 By ‘construction’ I mean that technology is never neutral as such, and it has its own normativity and politics: see DeNardis, supra n. 71; L. Winner, ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’ (1980) 109(1) Daedalus 121; and S. Larsson, Conceptions in the Code: How Metaphors Explain Legal Challenges in Digital Times (Oxford University Press 2017).

81 DeNardis, supra n. 71, p. 149. For a critical analysis of the concept of neutrality, see M. Maroni and E. Brogi, ‘Freedom of Expression and the Rule of Law: the Debate in the Context of Online Platform Regulation’, in L. Parcu and E. Brogi (eds.), Research Handbook on EU Media Law and Policy (Edward Elgar 2021).

82 An application of this can be found in D. Brouwer, ‘A Non-Discrimination Principle For Rankings In App Stores’, 9(4) Internet Policy Review (2020) p. 1.

83 M. Ragnedda, The Third Digital Divide: A Weberian Approach to Digital Inequalities (Routledge 2017).

84 van Schewick, supra n. 9.

85 Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra n. 1, recital 33.

86 See Art. 16 of the Charter.

87 N. Wahl, ‘The Freedom to Conduct a Business: a Right of Fundamental Importance for the Future of the European Union’, in F. Amtenbrink (ed.), The Internal Market and the Future of European Integration (Cambridge University Press 2019).

88 M. Everson and R. Correia Gonçalves, ‘Freedom to Conduct a Business’, in S. Peers et al. (eds.), The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: A Commentary (Hart Publishing 2014) p. 437.

89 Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union [2012] OJ C326, Art. 3(3).

90 Everson and Correia Gonçalves, supra n. 88.

91 Ibid.

92 U. Andrea, The Freedom to Conduct a Business in the EU, Its Limitations and Its Role in the European Legal Order: A New Engine for Deeper and Stronger Economic, Social, and Political Integration. (Cambridge University Press 2019) (the Italian constitution also remarks that the economic activities do not persue only their own interests).

93 Joined Cases C-807/18 and C-39/19, supra n. 2, para. 26.

94 Commission of the European Communities, Commission staff working document media pluralism in the member states of the European union (sec(2007) 32).

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