Sun, Dec 02, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Dark warnings about future of Internet access

An international conference to revise a global ‘digital’ treaty is sparking fears that precedents will be set that could jeopardize freedom on the Web

By Eric Pfanner  /  NY Times News Service, PARIS

CHARGE THEM

Analysts say the proposal is an acknowledgment by telecommunications companies that they cannot compete in the provision of digital content.

“The telecoms realize that they have lost the battle,” independent telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said 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 the 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 US, by contrast, most telecommunications companies have been permitted to maintain local monopolies — or duopolies, with cable companies — in broadband, keeping prices higher. And US regulators have ordered broadband providers to give equal priority to all Internet traffic. Such “network neutrality” is incompatible with charging content providers for carriage.

Analysts say this may explain why US telecommunications companies have not joined the European call for a new business model.

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.

Elsewhere, the idea may have wider support. While many documents prepared for the conference remain secret, several people who have seen submissions say there is broad support for Internet connection fees in French-speaking Africa and among Arab nations — countries in which many telecommunications companies are still owned or heavily regulated by governments.

Without taking sides on these proposals, Toure said during a speech in June that he thought it was “fully appropriate” to discuss the cost of building and improving broadband networks.

“Some have said that there is a need to address the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs, and to decide upon the most appropriate way to do so,” he said.

However, Cerf said that charging content providers for carriage was inconsistent with Toure’s stated goal of expanding access to the Internet.

“It would have a very significant impact on pricing on the Internet — very harmful in my opinion — especially for startups in developing countries,” Cerf said.

RUSSIAN PROPOSAL

Much of the attention before the 12-day conference has focused on a proposal from Russia that would effectively remove control of the Internet’s infrastructure from a collection of decentralized and apolitical organizations, mostly based in the US.

“Member states shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources,” Russia proposed.

Those functions are performed by the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private organization with an international board that operates under contract with the US government.

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