November 27, 2012
Integrity of Internet Is Crux of Global Conference
By ERIC PFANNER
PARIS — A commercial and ideological clash is set for next week, when
representatives of more than 190 governments, along with telecommunications
companies and Internet groups, gather in Dubai for a once-in-a-generation
The subject: Control of the Internet, politically and commercially.
The stated purpose of the World Conference on International
Telecommunications is to update a global treaty on technical standards needed
to, say, connect a telephone call from Tokyo to Timbuktu. The previous
conference took place in 1988, when the Internet was in its infancy and
telecommunications remained a highly regulated, mostly analog-technology
Now the Internet is the backbone for worldwide communications and commerce.
Critics of the International Telecommunication Union, the agency of the
United Nations that is organizing the meeting, see a dark agenda in the
meeting. The blogosphere has been raging over supposed plans led by Russia to
snatch control of the Internet and hand it to the U.N. agency.
That seems unlikely. Any such move would require an international consensus,
and opposition is widespread.
Terry D. Kramer, the former Vodafone executive who is the United States
ambassador to the conference, has vowed to veto any change in how the
Internet is overseen.
Analysts say the real business of the conference is business. “The far bigger
issue — largely obscured by this discussion — are proposals that are more
likely to succeed that envision changing the way we pay for Internet
services,” Michael Geist, an Internet law professor at the University of
Ottawa, said by e-mail.
Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the I.T.U., has repeatedly said that the
U.N. group has no desire to take over the Internet or to stifle its growth.
On the contrary, he says, one of the main objectives of the conference is to
spread Internet access to more of the four and a half billion people around
the world who still do not use it.
And yet, groups as diverse as Google, the Internet Society, the International
Trade Union Confederation and Greenpeace warn that the discussions could set
a bad precedent, encouraging governments to step up censorship or take other
actions that would threaten the integrity of the Internet.
“This is a very important moment in the history of the Internet, because this
conference may introduce practices that are inimical to its continued growth
and openness,” Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist
at Google, said in a conference call.
Google set up a Web site last week, “Take Action,” encouraging visitors to
sign a petition for a “free and open Internet.” The campaign is modeled on
the successful drive last winter to defeat legislative proposals to crack
down on Internet piracy in the United States.
More energy is expected to be spent on how companies make money off the
Internet. In one submission to the conference, the European
Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, a lobbying group based in
Brussels that represents companies like France Télécom, Deutsche Telekom and
Telecom Italia, proposed that network operators be permitted to assess
charges for content providers like Internet video companies that use a lot of
Analysts say the proposal is an acknowledgment by European telecommunications
companies that they cannot hope to provide digital content. “The telecoms
realize that they have lost the battle,” said Paul Budde, an independent
telecommunications analyst in Australia. “They are saying, ‘We can’t beat the
Googles and the Facebooks, so let’s try to charge them.’ ”
The European lobbying group says that without the new fees, there will be no
money to invest in network upgrades needed to deal with a surge in traffic.
Regulators have required European telecommunications operators to open their
networks to rivals, and the market for broadband is fiercely competitive,
with rock-bottom prices.
In the United States, by contrast, most telecommunications companies have
been permitted to maintain local monopolies — or duopolies, with cable
companies — in broadband, keeping prices higher. And American regulators have
ordered broadband providers to give equal priority to all Internet traffic.
Such “network neutrality” is incompatible with charging content providers for
moving their bits of data.
Analysts say this may explain why American telecommunications companies have
not joined the European call for a new business model. “Models that try to
force payment terms between nations and telecom operators run a huge risk of
cutting off traffic,” Mr. Kramer said in an interview. “Liberalized markets
are the only way to expand the success of the Internet.”
People who have been briefed on the conference submissions say that not a
single European government delegation has endorsed the telecommunications
operators’ proposal, and the European Parliament has passed a resolution
denouncing it. Only governments, not private groups or companies, can put
items on the meeting agenda.