Europe Unplugged

The Global Village Protests Its Connection Fees

Internet users in 15 European countries staged the largest ever "Net strike" on Sunday when they turned off their modems for the day to protest against what they see as high phone charges in Europe. Many Web sites across the continent were also brought down and replaced with the European Telecom Boycott logo. European Internet users who pay by the minute for telephone connections to their Internet service providers (ISPs) look enviously across the Atlantic at Americans who pay a single flat-rate fee for local calls.

Measuring how many people gave up the Internet for the day is a tricky business. But Erol Ziya, spokesperson for the Campaign for Unmetered Telecoms in the U.K., which helped organize the boycott, claims "it was a huge success from our point of view. Our membership rose by 30 percent to 40 percent in the days leading up to the strike and we had a tenfold increase in pledges of support. In the U.K. we're very focused on how many column inches we can generate— we have no way of actually assessing how many people didn't log on." The widespread coverage that the British organizers had hoped for touched most of the British and European media, even making it as far afield as India.

In Spain, groups promoting the boycott claimed Web browsing was down 38 percent and that the number of e-mails sent fell by 90 percent on Sunday. In Britain, a cellular phone user was overheard on a train berating a friend for calling her during the telecom strike.

The strike was even supported by some ISPs. AOL U.K., which has around 600,000 users, said in a statement, "The grassroots campaign mirrors AOL Europe's longstanding opposition to metered local call charges, which the company believes remain the biggest single obstacle to the growth of the Internet and e- commerce in Europe."

London-based Internet consultant Joe Abbro, who turned off his modem for the day, said, "This kind of action is very important because it's the only way you can hit back at the telcos. If the boycott prevented enough people from using their phones, then I'm sure the telcos are going to have to sit up and take notice, because it affects their bottom line. There aren't many other ways to change the behavior of these oligopolists."

French computer science student Jonathan Garcia was equally supportive, saying, "You've got nothing to lose. Phone charges in France are very expensive compared to the U.S., and, compared to the rest of Europe, there isn't much competition in the French [telecom] market. This boycott will help increase competition."

Despite the strike, British Telecom, at least, remained adamant that flat-rate charging across the board is not about to be introduced. BT spokesperson Simon Gordon says: "We are continually reviewing our pricing and listening to our Internet customers, but one way or another customers have to pay for access. We just think our method of charging by the usage is fairer."

machineage@villagevoice.com

 
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