Every time an Internet user watches Gangnam Style on YouTube, packets of digital data course through the global telecommunications system, converging on an iPhone, tablet or laptop.
Having missed out on most of the lucrative revenue that the explosion of digital content has generated for Internet companies, telecommunications providers in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere now want to charge them for carrying this traffic.
No way, the content providers say.
This commercial and ideological clash is set for a showdown 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 meeting.
The ostensible 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 business.
Critics of the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that is organizing the meeting, see a darker agenda. The blogosphere has been raging over supposed plans led by Russia to snatch away control of the Internet and hand it to the UN agency.
That seems unlikely. Any such move would require an international consensus and opposition is widespread. Terry Kramer, the US’ ambassador to the conference, has vowed to veto any change in how the Internet is overseen.
Union secretary-general Hamadoun Toure of the telecommunications, has repeatedly said that it has no desire to take over the Internet or to stifle its growth. On the contrary, one of the main objectives of the conference is to spread Internet access to more of the 4.5 billion people around the world who still do not use it, he said.
However, 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,” said Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, during a conference call.
Google set up a Web site last week titled “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 US.
Analysts say the outcry over censorship and Internet governance is a red herring — 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.
In one submission to the conference, the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, a lobbying group based in Brussels that represents companies like France Telecom, 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 bandwidth.
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.
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.
Russia also proposed that “member states shall have the sovereign right to establish and implement public policy, including international policy, on matters of Internet governance, and to regulate the national Internet segment, as well as the activities within their territory of operating agencies providing Internet access or carrying Internet traffic.”
This was widely interpreted as a call to legitimize domestic censorship of the Internet. Yet analysts note that governments inclined to filter the Web, like China and Iran, have not felt the need to wait for US permission to do so.
In any case, Kramer said he would reject the Russian proposals, as well as those from telecommunications companies to charge content providers. Like most UN agencies, the telecommunications union customarily operates by consensus, so there is little chance that any proposal drawing broad opposition could end up in the final document.
Kramer said during an interview that he was nevertheless concerned that if the proposals for fees gained traction at the high-profile international conference, they could resurface elsewhere, or individual governments could try to impose such fees unilaterally.
“Models that try to force payment terms between nations and telecoms operators run a huge risk of cutting off traffic,” he said. “Liberalized markets are the only way to expand the success of the Internet.”