The European Commission will continue to support net neutrality and an open internet for e-commerce, the Commission’s Vice President, Andrus Ansip has pledged. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on 26 February, the former Estonian prime minister also described internet access as a basic right and called for more transparency from online platforms.
Mr Ansip began by praising the internet for its contribution to innovation, and allowing a thriving digital economy. Listing the successes of the two decades since the EU’s e-commerce directive was enacted he pointed to surges in quality and speed of online access, the rise of cloud storage and the booming use of social media. He told the gathering of mobile phone industry leaders that these improvements are largely due to the directive, which he said established the liability of platforms and guarantees freedom of expression online.
Referring to net neutrality as the other side of the same coin, Mr Ansip pledged that the European Commission remains committed to the ideal. “I believe everyone has the right to access an open internet, where all traffic should in principle be treated equally. EU law has protected these principles for almost two years,” he told the congress. His attachment to open online access will not be a surprise to those who know Mr Ansip’s background. Estonia has long been known as a pioneer in online access, with many of these advances, including its e-residency initiative coming during his premiership, and the country declared internet access to be a human right as long ago as 2000.
In his speech he stressed that he has carried this position on to his work in Brussels: “Access to the internet is a basic right. It has to stay open for everybody. No discrimination,” he said. Central to Mr Ansip’s message was the principal that improved service for some users ought not to be at the expense of others: “I do not want a digital motorway for the lucky few, while others use a digital dirt-track,” he explained.
Mr Ansip is not alone in viewing internet access as a basic human right. Research unveiled by Facebook and the Economist Intelligence Unit has revealed that 67% of respondents in a global survey spanning 86 countries agree with that position. Especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa people reported that having access to the internet has boosted their economic situation and emboldened their freedom of expression.
In a blog post introducing the results Facebook’s Robert Pepper and Molly Jackman also stressed the importance of equal access: “If the ability to use and benefit from the internet is unevenly distributed, it could serve to deepen inequality,” they wrote. The social media giant says it plans to help reduce the number of people without web access, which is currently 3.8bn, or about half of the world’s population. Beyond genuine altruism, Facebook of course has another motivation to get these people connected. You can’t use Facebook if you can’t get online.