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.
“The revised ITRs should acknowledge the challenges of the new internet economy and the principles that fair compensation is received for carried traffic and operators’ revenues should not be disconnected from the investment needs caused by rapid internet traffic growth,” said Luigi Gambardella, the chair of ETNO, which represents Europe’s largest e-communications services and network providers.
“The ITRs should be flexible enough so as to further encourage future growth and sustainable development of telecoms markets, while respecting the guiding principles that led to the successful development of the Internet: private sector leadership, independent multi-stakeholder governance and commercial agreements,” Gambardella added.
"If you are going to make policy on the internet you need to know about the affected parties in this case civil society, governments, industry. That means a multi-stakeholder approach should be preserved. That is not happening in the ITU negotiations,” said Vint Cerf, a so-called “father of the internet,” who works as Google’s chief internet evangelist.
“Static regulation could threaten the growth of the Internet, the Internet economy and Internet innovation,” said Sally Wentworth of the Internet Society, an NGO seeking to retain an open internet.
Wentworth went on to explain why there are fears over the Dubai negotiations: “Only governments ultimately get to negotiate. If you want to be involved, the first thing to do is to call on your government to offer an open and participatory national process to prepare for this treaty negotiation.”
- 20-22 June: EU officials in Geneva for pathfinder meeting ahead of Dubai summit
- 3-14 Dec. 2012: WCIT in Dubai