The European Commission said it will seek “a conservative approach” to proposed changes to international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) later this year, which some warn could end up imposing tighter security and pricing regimes on the internet.

In December, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a United Nations-backed  regulator, is set to propose amendments to ITRs at a 10-day conference in Dubai.

The potential changes are controversial because of the burgeoning interface between the internet and mobile telephony triggered by the rise of smartphones.

In Europe, research firm comScore put combined smartphone ownership for France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain at 44% of mobile users as of December 2011.

Smartphones boost telecom network traffic

Telecommunication companies hope the conference will open the way for them to start charging internet users relying on their networks. Internet users are increasingly relying on smartphones and other hand-held devices such as tablets to access the web.

The conference is stoking controversy, with ‘open internet’ campaigners such as Vinton Cerf – one of the founders of internet technology – arguing strongly that the ITRs should be kept out of internet regulation. Telecoms companies argue that they do not want to impose regulation on the internet, but need to redress an imbalance in their expensive networks being used for free by ever increasing internet traffic.

Data privacy and cyber security issues will also feature high on the conference agenda, with China and Russia expected to seek a stronger role for the International Telecommunications Union, a Geneva-based UN body.

Such moves will be resisted by the US and Europe, who wish to maintain a more ‘open’ and unrestricted governance of the internet.

'Conservative line' in Geneva

EU officials will attend a meeting in Geneva next week (20-22 June) to examine final proposals for revision of the ITRs at the Dubai conference. A source within the EU executive told EurActiv that the EU would take “a conservative line” at the conference, seeking to avoid the imposition of new regulations that could stifle an ‘open internet’ culture."

The EU would, however, like to see the conference “leave the way open for commercial arrangements to be made, enabling telecoms companies to agree pricing agreements for internet use,” the source added.

The EU is considering how to represent its member states’ views in Dubai to deliver the strongest results. Options under consideration include granting the Commission a right to speak for all member states at the conference, or the European Council deciding that member states should individually agree changes to international telecoms treaties, in accordance with EU law.

The latter option currently appear as the most likely, EU sources said.