Participants listen to Hamdoun Toure, head of the International Telecommunication Union in Dubai on Wednesday as they debate the future of the internet Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Who rules the internet? How should it evolve? And who should pay?

These questions are at the heart of a 12-day meeting underway here now that may have far-reaching ramifications on how you every time you log onto the world wide web.

And like the web itself, there are as many opinions at the World Conference on International Communications (WCIC) as there are delegates — more than 2,000 from 193 member countries are at the gathering at the Exhibition Centre.

Sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, the meeting is hoping to aims to draft a new treaty to underpin international telecommunications regulations. The last ones were drafted in 1988 — before the internet became ubiquitous — and need to catch up and anticipate new technologies in the fast-changed world of telecommunications.

“My job is to set the infrastructure right when the traffic comes,” Secretary-General of the ITU, Dr Hamadoun Toure, told Gulf News in an interview on Wednesday.

“We have plenty on our plate — managing global spectrum, managing satellite locations, work we do in standardisations and work we do in development — to handle. There is no need to take over other’s job,” he said.

“If the nations tell me that ITU should take over the internet, I am not prepared for that and it is not in my mandate. It can only change in 2014,” he said.

Toure made it clear that the Dubai conference would be very much about broadband, how to get it to the billions who don’t get it now and how to handle increasing bandwidth demands. It is mainly about connection to connectivity through telecommunications.

“We have some stake in the infrastructure side and not in the content and governance of the internet. Despite negative criticism, the conference is off to a good start,” he said.

“We are a UN agency and whenever some people cannot solve their problems they come to ITU and express them and we pass on the message. We are the messenger. Being a messenger, we need not necessarily resolve the problems. We bring it to the attention of those who are supposed to solve it,” he said.

Those problems, however, are at the heart of this conference.

Russia and China have been explicit in their goal of taking control of the internet away from the US.

African states want measures to ensure that operating agencies have the right to charge providers of international communication applications and services appropriate access charges based on the agreed quality of service.

Arab states, including the UAE, are proposing greater control by governments in regulating the internet and transfer of data.

Telecom companies in the European Union are trying to get Google to pay for the bandwidth YouTube and its other websites are using since 2010 — traffic which is clogging up broadband capacity as more and more users click on the content — and that means fees passed onto to users.

“Imposing fees for content coming into networks are a clear and present danger to investment that will connect our people to the internet,” Dr Rohan Samarajiva, a former Sri Lankan director general for telecommunications, told Gulf News.

He said it is widely recognised that access-network providers exert a degree of market power because they can control access to their customers.

For example, a person sitting in the UAE requests for a YouTube video. A small amount of data goes out to wherever the server is. A large amount of data flows in to the UAE network, a large net inflow.

According to this model, he said the sending network would have to pay an “access charge” that is considered appropriate by the various governments. There is talk of commercial agreements, but what is a commercial agreement in which the payments are second-guessed by governments? The transaction costs of negotiating thousands of commercial agreements in the newly liberalised telecom environment would be high.

Toure said that some light regulation is needed on the internet or the strongest will impose their will and the weakest will die.

The US has anti-competitive laws that protect dominant carriers so that they “don’t misuse their powers. Those are rules of the game. This is regulation and not over regulation that enables companies to grow and innovate.”

The financial sector went into crises because of total "lack of regulation". We say that too much regulation will kill the system, but some light regulation will set some rules of the game to boost competition and fair.”

Samarajiva, however, warns that Google, Facebook, Amazon and iTunes would have to pay national network operators significantly more for the bandwidth their services use.

The Americans are to fighting this move to the bitter end at the conference and Google has been campaigning for more than a month against it.

Google says it has gathered support from nearly 3 million people around the world for a free and open internet.

“The internet has created so much value today due to its openness. [It is] borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organise and influence, to speak and be heard,” Bill Echikson, Head of Free Expression Policy and PR, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Google, said.

“No single entity controls the internet; it is controlled by the billions of people,” he said. “Governments have a role but the internet has always been an instrument of the people because it is designed to be open and free from the bottom up, not the top down.”

Samarajiva said the new payment proposal that are being requested and the transaction costs are likely to Balkanise the internet. Entire countries and networks may cease to have access to attractive content, because the content providers or the networks that host the content may deprive them of access because it no longer makes economic sense to serve them.

“Such proposals would have deeply problematic effects on the developing world’s ability to access low-priced online content,” he said.

With inputs from Naushad Cherryil