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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The WCIT fiasco - the European commission against ETNO

Amid the shocking news of austerity plans and billions directed at rescuing troubled banks, media kind of forgot to inform us of the battle on the top of the EU who to decide the future of Internet. The funniest thing (for me) is that from the media, it's next to impossible to understand who fights for what. Let's make a little review of the information we have:
USAToday, November 26, 2012: Web access battles brew before U.N. conference "In upcoming U.N. gathering about Internet oversight is raising alarms from a broad coalition of critics,(...), concerned that changes could lead to greater efforts to censor Web content and stifle innovation in cyberspace.
Another likely battle when the meeting begins Dec. 3 is over European-backed suggestions to change the pay structure of the Web to force content providers — such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and others — to kick in an extra fee to reach users across borders. 
The American technology company envoys in Dubai also are expected to push back strongly against any sweeping revision in Internet charges. The proposal, led by the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, would do away with the current system — called "net neutrality" — that now treats all Internet traffic equally, regardless of who is sending or receiving.
In its place, the European plan seeks to have content providers pay when their service is accessed across borders. The money raised, theoretically, could pay to expand broadband infrastructures in developing countries."
This article was the first to draw attention to the issue. Which is kind of strange, since according to the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), a position from August, 2012 says:
"ETNO will use this opportunity to inform regional participants of the ETNO proposal to the ITU, which provides for a new sustainable model for the Internet, to be based on commercial agreements between undertakings, for the benefit of all. The ETNO contribution calls for a new economic model for the Internet that provides end-to-end Quality of Service delivery, in addition to best effort delivery." source

So the question is how come, we didn't know of this position for like 3 months?!

By the way, on the same page, you can find a list of the members of ETNO. These are really the biggest telecoms in Europe. So it is surprising the such a novel position, was decided in total lack of transparency and public discussion. Note that their motivation is not financial, it's all for the public good. Of course, it's ridiculous to claim that you'll invest the extra-money you get in broadband connections in developing countries - after all, it's the customers who pay for that broadband and I somehow doubt it telecoms are going to alleviate customers from the additional charges.

Anyway, let's move on. The article which buzzing the net these days is:
Euraktiv, 30 November 2012, Commission sidelined from critical IT summit in Dubai:
"EU member states yesterday (29 November) elbowed the European Commission out of a representative role when 193 governments gather next week in Dubai for key treaty negotiations affecting the telecoms and internet industry.

Instead, EU member states' representatives at the EU Council of Ministers agreed a joint position for them to approve individually at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), taking place on 3-14 December in Dubai. The decision, agreed by the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday (29 November), was kept out of the EU’s official journal, since it includes details of the bloc’s preferred negotiating stance.

The US strongly opposes the original ETNO proposal, whilst the European Council’s joint position is nuanced. It says that member states: “Do not support any proposals insofar as they may affect EU common rules or alter their scope, or introduce obligations on operators which go beyond those already provided for.”  On the face of it this would suggest strong opposition, although there is no explicit opposition to the relevant clause. "

On first glance, it seems there is some kind of battle for power on the top. One second glance, one reads in other sources :
"However, a Commission official said on Friday that it was not true that the Commission had been sidelined, pointing out that it was the Commission that wrote the E.U.'s negotiating position for the conference.
The E.U.'s position is to minimize the effects of decisions taken at WCIT. It undertakes "to support proposals that seek to ensure that the revised treaty remains technology neutral and to oppose proposals to make ITU recommendations binding."" source

Go figure.

Obviously, if only nations can vote, the EC cannot participate in the vote. However, if associations can lobby and make proposals, which seems to be the case, then nothing stops the EC to make a contra-proposal to the one of ETNO or to even publicly distance from it. Even more so, since there is an EP position against the ETNO proposal (you can also read the position of the MEP I. Kalfin on the issue). They, didn't do anything like this!
It's hard not to suppose that the ETNO is actually the front end of the huge lobby of the telecommunication companies. If you check the list, we are talking about huge companies with many resources for lobbying. And also, it's a matter of a hell lot of money. Imagine if Youtube has to pay for every visitor, each day.

Let's check what exactly the ETNO wants:
A CDT Analysis, June 21, 2012, Radical Proposal Now on the Table at the ITU:
"ETNO’s proposal is ambiguous in some respects, but it seems to urge radical changes. In particular, the proposal asks the ITU to adopt through treaty an approach to Internet interoperability that would completely upend what has been widely adopted today – a system of voluntary agreements that has successfully enabled anyone (once connected to the Internet) to speak to anyone else in the world, or launch a new website or application, without having to negotiate with entrenched private (and even state-owned) telecom interests in the middle. The ETNO proposal would introduce new friction by requiring sending networks to navigate a new system of fees to deliver content to end users.
While the ETNO proposal might benefit large, incumbent telecommunications operators, it will not likely expand Internet access in countries that need it most. And the ETNO proposal could negatively impact Internet users, in several concrete ways. The proposal could:
  1. Increase the cost of Internet access for everyone by replacing the existing, highly functional Internet interconnection system with something significantly more complex and costly.
  2. Cause online service and content providers to abandon smaller and less developed countries, depriving citizens in those countries of access to information, knowledge, and empowering communications technologies. The proposal would require online content and application providers (potentially broadly defined) to pay to reach specific users.
  3. Increase costs for individuals and businesses located in less developed countries who want to reach users and audiences outside their country because they, too, may be required to pay to do so. 
  4. Disproportionately impact not-for-profit entities, individual speakers, and new forms of non-commercial and collaborative endeavors, all of which may have little ability to pay new and unpredictable fees to reach global user bases.
Fundamentally undermine principles of Internet neutrality, owing to the “quality of service” requirement (explained further below), by encouraging telecom operators to decide what kinds of traffic and communications deserve priority treatment and what kinds of traffic might be left to lag behind." source
I recommend this analysis, since it's very informational and goes to the technological level of the change which would be required should the ETNO proposal be accepted.

A serious source of uncertainty lies in the definition of "content provider". Because everyone these days is a content provider of a kind. If you use Youtube or Blogger, the content provider is Google. So it would be hard to imagine how Google or Facebook could keep their service free to the user if they have to pay the telecoms for the traffic they receive.

But a far worst situation occurs if you have your own site, which is successful enough to gather many international visitors. Under the ETNO proposition, you'll have to pay the telecoms for those visitors! Whether directly or trough your hosting plan it doesn't matter. You'll have to pay for something you don't have any control of. It's absurd.

To sum up, for me, this proposal is wrong and is yet another way, for the "poor" telecoms to suck money from their most unfortunate clients. Those telecoms are in absolute monopolist position, since they own the high-speed fiber-optical connections and they lend it to other local telecommunication providers (note that in the ETNO list, most countries have only one representative). So they have all the means necessary to basically arm-twist the governments to vote for whatever they would like. Thus it is critical to show our citizens position so that they know we won't allow the very concept of Internet to be deformed in a way that would certainly hamper freedom of speech and information. Unfortunately it's hard to find out what exactly the position of the EC is, maybe they are just being cautious after the protests against ACTA, but in any case, we have to let them now, that this won't pass, that we are ready to fight for our rights!
Edit: Here's another peace of information I found today:
Wired, "Internet Hangs in Balance as World Governments Meet in Secret",12.03.12:
"The United States is battling plans to treat the internet like the telephone when it comes to transmission agreements. Some European and Middle Eastern members are calling for so-called termination fees, in which networks where a web session begins must pay the routing cost for the session’s destination — like phone companies work with phone calls.
“That model, in general, lends itself to fewer providers, higher prices, slower take-up of internet, slower economic growth,” said Terry Kramer, the head of the U.S. delegation.
Llanso said termination fees, which would obviously be paid for by consumers, also opens the door to more internet monitoring.
“You can also read it as a campaign,” she said, “to make all internet communication more traceable and more trackable, invading users’ privacy.”

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