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Some WCIT proposals may violate trade agreements, paper says

The authors question proposals that would create operator licenses for websites and termination fees for Web traffic

Websites could be required to apply for telecom operator licenses in multiple countries under proposals that will be made at an upcoming telecom treaty conference hosted by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union, according to a paper released Wednesday.

Some proposals would also violate free trade commitments that member countries have made to the World Trade Organization, according to the paper, written for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a U.S. trade group that has called for the ITU to stay away from Internet regulation.

Countries have submitted the proposals for the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a treaty-writing conference to set international telecom regulations.

Other proposals create new termination fees or access charges for Internet traffic, in violation of WTO agreements that prohibit member countries from discriminating against telecom traffic from outside their borders, the paper said.

The proposals, by a group of African states and a group of Arab states, "could have a bearing on or directly conflict with various WTO commitments," wrote authors Rohan Samarajiva, CEO of LIRNEasia, and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy. "[ITU regulations] do not nullify nor amend WTO commitments."

Some of proposals could harm global trade, the two wrote. The proposals would increase the cost of e-commerce, "reduce access to attractive content and thereby slow down Internet take-up," Samarajiva and Lee-Makiyama wrote.

The ITU's chief spokeswoman was traveling Wednesday to the conference and not available for comment. WCIT begins Monday in Dubai.

Samarajiva and Lee-Makiyama expressed concern over several proposals:

-- Proposals by the Arab and African states could require licensing for ISPs and Web content providers located outside a country's borders, if they provide services into the country. "As a consequence, an Internet banking service or a blog could be forced to apply for a telecom operator license," the authors wrote.

-- African and Arab proposals would allow for telecom-style termination fees for Internet traffic. If a receiving ISP "is unwilling to accept traffic at any technically feasible point in its network," that would violate WTO rules, Samarajiva and Lee-Makiyama wrote.

-- African and Arab proposals would also allow ISPs to assess access charges to websites and Web application providers based on quality of service. Those proposals would create a "slippery slope becoming a cartel manager" for Internet traffic, they wrote.

When the CCIA has talked to several countries about their WTO commitments "It was clear that the ministries dealing with WCIT were not really aware of how their existing WTO obligations limited their freedom to adopt Internet-related provisions" at WCIT, CCIA's Geneva representative, Nick Ashton-Hart, said in a statement.

The report provides a "great service" to WCIT negotiators and the trade community, he said. 

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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