Digital Czar Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

European Union digital commissioner Günther Oettinger of Germany is trying to provide equal Internet access to everybody – with a few exceptions.
The E.U.'s digital commissioner Günther Oettinger says he is not a "digital native" – and has never used Uber.

Günther Oettinger, 61, was appointed European Union commissioner for digital economy and society in 2014. Before that, he was minister of the German state Baden-Württemberg from 2005 to 2010 and then became European commissioner for energy for five years. Mr. Oettinger is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats. He confessed to German business news magazine WirtschaftsWoche that he's not a digital native.


Are we heading toward a two-class system when it comes to the Internet, where in the future, only big clients get good service?

We're focusing on net neutrality right now. That means equal treatment for everyone; data will be handled the same way for everybody. We won't allow for discrimination of content. We hope to reach an agreement midyear. At that point, Europe will have reached legal certainty, something the United Stated is not going to achieve that early.

The United States has come to the decision that all users of the Internet are equal. But that decision remains very sketchy in some areas.

I think the decision U.S. President Barak Obama took regarding net neutrality is good marketing. The 300-page long set of rules regarding open Internet is difficult to understand. Whenever I ask the head of the Federal Communications Commission about areas such as e-health, he answers that those areas are not affected. The Americans are creating general rules, but there are certain things they don’t want to regulate.

Is Europe going to do a better job?

In Europe there won’t be preferential treatment on the Internet. That's the key point. Companies or private individuals that are generating less revenue for the Internet provider are not allowed to get poorer service, such as lower transmission volume. There has to be a consistent quality standard for everybody. In addition, there have to be special services that serve people's interest -- those will have some additional advantages.

Isn't that discrimination?

Exceptions for special services need to be tightly limited and we'll require companies to supply a reason why they should get special treatment. A hospital, for instance, needs to show that it must have priority on the Internet when it comes to surgery. The same is true for autonomous driving and interlinking of cars.

That sounds very bureaucratic. Is there not going to be a fight about how this is being regulated?

I have faith in the experts. They can determine exactly what's in the interest of the general public. It makes more sense to have some firms show why they deserve special treatment than determining today what kind of special services will be needed in four years' time. Nobody knows that, and this is why it doesn’t make sense to put it in law today. If we think we can know exactly what we want to exclude, we will block creativity in new services.

For those receiving privileged access or services, how will this kind of exemption be determined?

I can imagine the European Commission will have a ranking by qualification. This could be a recommendation basis for the regulatory body. There's public interest in many areas: traffic security, avoidance of traffic jam, saving people’s lives.

Why is discussing net neutrality so dishonest? If we want to play a role within the digital economy, there won’t be anything like net neutrality – this is something nobody says out loud.

I am in the middle of political negotiations. But if I were a user and would have nothing to do with business, then I would also want to have the highest quality standard available without restrictions.

Why is the topic of net neutrality so emotional?

In the world of net neutrality, there are people who want to be free world citizens. Ursula von der Leyen (former German minister of family affairs, now minister of defense) wanted to introduce bans on child pornography. There was an outcry, not because people wanted to download child porn, but because this proposal was seen as an attack on freedom.

Faster network expansion would increase data capacity. Would the debate be more relaxed if there were more capacity available? 

Of course. We could loosen up a bit with higher data capacity. There is a difference if data transmission is at 5 or 10 or 30 megabytes per second. If the mobile data network of the 5th generation, or 5G, would be around by 2020, then there would be less shortage in data transmission.

Are special services, such as in the automotive area, possible without 5G?

Car manufacturers must answer the question whether there is nothing they can do until we have 5G or if they can start working on pilot projects for the next three to five years. I am in touch with the car manufacturers. By fall, I would like to know what technology they need and what trial roads would be possible for pilot tests.

When it comes to funding of network expansion, there is a conflict: Deutsche Telekom wants to enhance copper cables, which would leave no more space for competitors. They want that the modern fiber optic cable being laid all the way to the customer.

We want to be as neutral as possible. The European funding will focus on quality standards in which we tell them what transmission speed we expect. There is no preference in technology. We want strong players like Deutsche Telekom and healthy competitors. The small ones also need to have a chance.

As the commissioner responsible, you should be using a lot of digital services – have you ever used Uber?

No, I almost never use taxis, and when I do then most of the time it’s in Stuttgart [his home town]. But there, I know almost every driver, and if I hire a car there, I go for taxis.


This story first appeared in Wirtschaftswoche. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]