Every time an Internet user watches "Gangnam Style" on YouTube, packets of digital data course through the global telecommunications system, converging on an iPhone, a tablet or a 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 analogue business.
Critics of the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that is organising 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.
Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the telecommunications union, has repeatedly said that it has no desire to take over the internet or to stifle its growth. On the contrary, he says, one of the main objectives of the conference is to spread internet access to more of the four and a half billion people around the world who still do not use it.
And yet, groups as diverse as Google, the Internet Society, the International Trade Union Confederation andGreenpeace 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," Vinton G Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, said during a conference call.
Google set up a website last week, 'Take Action', encouraging visitors to sign a petition for a "free and open internet". "The far bigger issue - largely obscured by this discussion - are proposals that envision changing the way we pay for internet services," Michael Geist, an internet law professor at the University of Ottawa, said by email. 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. "The telecos realise that they have lost the battle," said Paul Budde, an independent telecommunications analyst 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 United States, 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.