A conference to update global telecommunications regulation in the Internet age could undermine economic development in developing countries if a controversial proposal to alter how international Internet data transmission is funded is adopted.
Major divisions have emerged at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai this month (3-14 December), which has been convened to update Internet regulation via a new international treaty under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency based in Geneva. The last such treaty was signed in 1988, before the advent of the Internet.
Some countries in Africa and the Arab region argue that Internet companies should hand over a larger portion of their revenue to the communications networks that carry their traffic to other countries, to allow the networks to invest in broadband upgrades. They see the conference as an opportunity to bring Internet regulation under greater control of governments.
Meanwhile, Internet-freedom advocates want the Internet excluded from the treaty altogether.
The fear in certain developing countries and among Internet freedom advocates is that some of the proposals on the table could affect organisations that provide important data and content to developing countries, including eHealth and educational content.
One controversial proposal made by the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) calls for fees to be levied on Internet companies. This would be similar to the situation with traditional wire-based telephony, in which the company placing the call pays a fee to the company receiving it.
Although designed to make Internet behemoths such as Google, which send large amounts of traffic over the Internet, pay part of their advertising proceeds to the carrying networks, the proposal could affect all kinds of content providers, not just a few giants.
Both private and state-owned entities operate Internet networks. Many networks simply exchange traffic with one another without payment and detailed accounting.
The wider fear is that such measures could exacerbate the digital divide between rich and poor nations.
We are not talking about a paywall, we are talking about an insurmountable barrier for these [poorer] countries, says Rohan Samarajiva, a former director-general of telecommunications for the Sri Lanka government, who is now CEO of LIRNEasia, a regional think-tank on information and communications technology (ICT) policy.
Samarajiva tells SciDev.Net that including the Internet in this treaty could reverse 20 years of liberalised policies that have delivered affordable connectivity to developing countries.
He adds: It has the potential to cut off much of the developing world from the Internet applications they have come to depend on.
Terry Kramer, head of the US delegation to WCIT, said before the conference that the United States opposes proposals that could make content generation more costly and uneconomical [and] will likely lead many small businesses and non-profits to restrict or charge for downloads even leading to 'blackouts' in less-developed countries due to high termination charges.
Although opposed by many Asian countries and not backed by European governments themselves, the ETNO proposal is backed by some African and Arab countries, who see it as a way to fund Internet infrastructure investment, particularly to upgrade to high-speed broadband.
African countries such as Cameroon strongly support the idea, but countries such as Botswana and Tanzania have already expressed reservations, according to diplomats.
Non-profit campaign body the Center for Democracy Technology (CDT) says: This [existing] system has successfully supported the globally interconnected Internet.
Some countries see that it would be advantageous for them because it would allow them to generate revenues. But there are a whole range of countries for whom it is a non-starter, says CDT Internet policy expert Matthew Shears, who is currently in Dubai.
CDT has carried out detailed analysis of the proposal, he says, and we are not convinced that interconnection fees would be used for funding infrastructure development.
The real dilemma is that no one really knows the impact, of such proposals, which could change the dynamic of Internet exchange, he tells SciDev.Net. It is really crunch time and it is absolutely imperative that the Internet is kept out of this treaty.
Contentious proposals put forward by some Arab states and Russia could also mean that countries would directly regulate Internet companies.