We've been talking for a few months about the nefarious plan by the UN's ITU (International Telecommunications Union) to try to begin regulating the internet, and just how dangerous
that would be. This is especially true as totalitarian countries have pretty clear plans to use this process to come up with ways to lock down the internet -- and potentially balkanize it. In the last few weeks the issue has been getting a lot more attention
, especially in the US, where there's widespread agreement that this is not something for the UN or ITU to be involved in.
Of course, a big part of the problem is just how secretive
the entire process is. Not only does it lack transparency, it entirely lacks accountability. It's a system that is ripe for abuse -- and a combination of either gullible or crafty officials seem to have no problem helping enable that kind of abuse.
As we noted in that last post, some of the first proposals had started leaking, and the deeper people dig into them, the worse they look. The basic proposal that is making the rounds is the one submitted by ETNO -- the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association. What they're proposing is a system that effectively puts in place a massive tax system for the internet
. Basically, they're taking a long-standing setup concerning how much it costs for telephone calls
, in which the calling party pays a ton of money to "connect" to an international phone system. Ever wondered why phone calls to foreign countries can be so crazy expensive?
And now the plan is to basically pretend that the internet is just like the phone system, so they can extend this "calling party pays" plan to one where the "sending party" pays
. The reasoning here is more or less twofold: (1) lots of these countries still have (either fully or partially) nationally owned telcos (or at least telco monopolies), whose business models have been completely undercut by the internet. Since these firms have been monopolists from the very beginning, they've never been very good at innovating or adapting to the times. The idea of shifting what had been a key money maker -- collecting tolls for international phone calls -- and then applying it to the internet sounds
really attractive to lazy national telco folks who would love a system that just starts printing money for them. (2) While they don't like to admit it, plenty of other countries remain quite jealous of the of large massively successful internet companies which are mostly based in the US. By placing a "sending party pays" tax, it's a way for European (and other) countries to more or less put up toll booths on the internet for these companies, forcing Google, Facebook, Twitter and others to "pay" to reach people in their countries. Oh, and on top of that, it's a chance for them to make plans to drop net neutrality
and the basic end-to-end principle that defines the internet.
In fact, the head of the ITU, in a series of speeches in which he insists he wants to cut short these rumors of a "UN takeover" of the internet, makes it abundantly clear that a big part of this plan is to simply funnel cash to national telcos, which he assumes (with no proof) will automatically go towards funding new infrastructure. Take for example, one of his recent speeches
in Canada, in which he repeatedly talks up how we need to get money to telcos so they'll invest in infrastructure:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Everyone wants mobile broadband and the benefits it will bring. But few seem willing to pay for it – including both the over-the-top players, who are generating vast new demand through their applications, and consumers, who have become accustomed to unlimited packages.
This is putting tremendous pressure on mobile operators, who need to invest in high-capacity broadband networks in order to maintain quality of service as demand rises.
At the same time, as broadband becomes increasingly viewed as basic infrastructure for social and economic development, operators are being asked to extend the reach of their networks to under-served populations.
These are strategic, bottom-line issues, and we need to be talking about them.
The argument he makes is that if we don't somehow subsidize and funnel excess cash to the telcos, they might not be able to survive or invest in additional core internet infrastructure. Of course, all of that ignores the customer
, and assumes a primary position for telcos who'd love to bring in this cash (though they appear to severely underestimate both the collateral damage and the lasting impact of such agreements). All of this ignores the fact that there's so much demand for true broadband internet access that more and more private solutions are appearing, none of which require putting a massive tax on the internet. Furthermore, it seems to assume no one will invest in broadband without government help. This, of course, ignores the fact that the effective monopolies of many national telcos has made those companies fat, lazy and slothful when it comes to actual innovation. There are all sorts of reasons to invest in broadband projects that don't require "taxation" every time internet packets cross national boundaries. Furthermore, if these telcos not only have a national monopoly, but are also getting free money from the outside world, what incentive do they really have to actually invest in improving the network?
If you think that roaming charges and international phone calls are crazy in Europe, you haven't seen anything until this ITU proposal moves forward.
And, of course, there's an even more nefarious and mostly unspoken aspect to all of this. While so much of the focus has been on money (and a little bit on technology), there's a bigger issue: destroying privacy online. No one will say that out loud, of course, but taxing the internet as it crosses borders opens up the door to tracking
internet usage. Because you can't tax something that you can't track
. So all of these proposals have the implicit problem that they open the door for countries who don't truly believe in privacy for their citizens, to also track how they use the internet, and defending it as required to remain in compliance. Anyone believe that won't be abused by corrupt and authoritarian governments?
In the end, this leads to an inevitable balkanization of the internet -- in which internet traffic crossing borders is taxed and tracked as it wasn't before (where the peering system has been mostly effective with just a few minor hiccups). Once you have such taxation it becomes cost prohibitive for some countries to even offer full internet access to its citizens, and that can get worse over time. Add to that the ability to widely track what people do online (and the ability to ditch the end-to-end principle of the internet) and -- especially for more authoritarian governments -- you open a huge can of worms to let officials spy on all sorts of internet activity in the name of
supporting a "international relations."
This is why people should be speaking out loudly against these proposals. So far, it's basically the US against everyone else -- and the US only has one vote.