When does free mean none?

Proposal to change how Internet is paid for may impact availability of most 'Net content in some countries

The International Telecommunications Union is scheduled to meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for two weeks in early December to revise the international treaties that define the ITU's role in the world. Many organizations have submitted proposals for changes to the existing treaties, which were last revised in the mostly pre-Internet era of 1988. One particular proposal, if adopted, has the potential of redefining the term "free" on the Internet to mean "none."

The ITU is holding the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to review and update its rules of the road. Up to now the ITU's road has not generally affected the Internet. Its standards development wing has developed or refined a number of "recommendations" (in ITU-speak) for the transports that the Internet runs over, but has generally not been involved in Internet-level technology. A number of the new proposals would change that and expand the ITU's scope to include such technologies as well as to include Internet policies and operations.

MORE: US House to ITU: Hands off the Internet

One particular proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) has generated a lot of controversy. The proposal has two main themes:

 1) "Member States shall facilitate the development of international IP interconnections providing both best effort delivery and end to end quality of service delivery."

2) "... 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 second theme of "respecting the principle of sending party network pays" is what could fundamentally change the Internet experience for users wherever it is implemented.

The principle of "sending party network pays" makes a great deal of sense in the telephone world. It means that if you place a phone call to someone in another country, you pay the phone company in that country to make the connection to the phone you are calling. This has been the basis of the national and international phone billing system just about forever.

But this principle does not translate well to the Internet. In the phone world the party that initiates the call pays for the call. On the Internet you initiate an Internet transfer when you click on a URL of, let's say, a YouTube video. But the bulk of the data transferred is from YouTube to you. Under the ETNO proposal YouTube might be asked to pay the ISP in your country to deliver that data to you. There are many technical issues with this idea -- one simple example: YouTube does not have any easy way to know who that ISP is. In addition, YouTube does have much reason to want to pay, since you are not paying YouTube any money to watch the video.

There are vast amounts of free material on the Internet. Any country that were to fully implement the ETNO proposal would likely find that almost all of that free material suddenly became non-existent as far as Internet users in that country were concerned.

There are real problems with ISP economics, particularly in the developing world, but redefining "free" to mean "none" is not the solution.

Disclaimer: Harvard provides a lot of free material over the Internet, for example the Harvard library catalog. I have not heard if Harvard would continue to do so if it had to pay, on top of its current Internet bill, extra to deliver the material, (I kinda doubt it), so the above exploration is mine alone.

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