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 The   EU and the US go head-to-head with Arab and African states over “free” telecoms markets. But what does this proposal  really mean for the Internet?

 As the 2012 World Congress of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)  - also known as the WCIT-2012  - got underway this week, and deep political fissures are looming over the future of the Internet, with an EU-US axis directly opposed to an Arab-African alliance.  The conflict was provoked by proposals tabled by the European telco organisation ETNO, but appears to have evolved.

 The issue at stake is the International Telecommunications Regulations –  often referred to by the acronym of ITRs. The ITRs were first drafted at a meeting in Melbourne, Australia in 1988, in a meeting that had a similar whiff of conflict. The original ITRs were pushed through using the strong will of the USA and the EU.

 The original ITRs contain a provision as follows:

Administrations shall endeavour to provide sufficient telecommunication facilities to meet the requirements of and demand for international telecommunication services.

This text is intended to express a very basic principle, to ensure that international  telecoms services are provided in all countries and that they interconnect  with those of other countries. It was written for the old environment of voice telephony. In the present-day Internet environment it is a little clunky, but could still apply.  If I understand it correctly, it is only intended to apply to the interconnection of international services, and to ensure that services can operate to all countries.

 What’s a happening at the WCIT 2012 is that various ITU members want to turn this basic principle of international interconnection into a political statement. And they want to twist it, in order to tell countries how to run their domestic telecoms services.

 The first to have a go  was the European Telecommunications Network operators group (ETNO), who a set of toxic proposals for a prioritised Internet. (See ITU 2012 - Europe’s telcos slip poison pill in new Internet rules ).  These ETNO proposals call for a sending party pays ‘principle’ and  a division of Internet traffic into a fast lane – for those who pay, and a slow ‘best efforts’ lane, for those who don’t. In essence, it goes against the principle of Net neutrality. These proposals have been re-tabled by the ITU Secretary General:

 Operating agencies shall endeavour to provide sufficient telecommunication facilities to meet the requirements of and demand for international telecommunication services. For this purpose, and to ensure an adequate return on investment in high bandwidth infrastructures, operating agencies shall negotiate commercial agreements to achieve a sustainable system of fair compensation for telecommunications services and, where appropriate, respecting the principle of sending party network pays.

 The EU has already made it clear that it disapproves of the ETNO proposals, which really do jump the gun on Brussels policy-making and set up an agenda for anti-net neutrality practices without any democratic debate. On that basis, it is unlikely the ETNO proposals could be accepted.

 But it would seem that  the EU has jumped into bed with the United States, to come up with a different variant:

Administrations shall encourage investment in sufficient telecommunication facilities to meet the requirements of and demand for international telecommunication services,inter alia through the fostering of competitive and liberalized telecommunication markets.

 The issue is what does ‘fostering of competitive and liberalised telecommunication markets’ mean? One interpretation is that it meets the status quo of the EU acquis communitaire, which does promote a liberalised and competitive market for infrastructure.  Another is that it could open the door for something very similar to the ETNO proposal, it just doesn’t say so as clearly. It really depends how you define ‘telecoms markets’. From their perspective, the ETNO proposal is about free competition.

 Certainly, the EU-US proposal  brings a political agenda for liberalisation and free trade in telecoms services into the ITU discussions, and it almost certainly is provoking conflict. It’s notable that ETNO is not alone in pushing for anti-net neutrality practices, and it is has been supported in previous  lobbying in the EU by AT&T and Verizon, who are also lobbying in their home turf.

 From what can be ascertained,  the EU-US axis is pitted against opposition from an Arab-African alliance. My interpretation is that they do not want competitive or liberalised markets of any sort:

Administrations  shall establish policies that promote the provision of technical facilities that support international telecommunication and shall ensure that operating agencies endeavour to provide sufficient telecommunication facilities to meet the requirements of and demand for international telecommunications/ICT services.

Whatever is the real meaning, there sure is  a conflict brewing behind the closed ITU doors. 


*I will be following the WCIT-12 - watch for more over the next 2 weeks.

  This is an original article from If you refer to it or to its content,  you should cite my name as the  author, and provide a link back to  Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, WCIT-2012: ITU scrap heats up over toxic Internet proposals ,   in,  5 December  2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.


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In 2012, I presented my PhD research in the European Parliament.

Don't miss Iptegrity!  RSS/ Bookmark is the website of Dr Monica Horten. She is a policy analyst specialising in Internet governance & European policy, including platform accountability. She is a published author & Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science. She served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee on  Internet Freedom. She has worked on CoE, EU and UNDP funded projects in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In a voluntary capacity, she has led UK citizen delegations to the European Parliament. She was shortlisted for The Guardian Open Internet Poll 2012.

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