x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Telecoms union chief lashes out at Google during Dubai conference

Hamadoun Touré, the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, took a swipe at Google for 'abusing its power'.

The head of the International Telecommunications Union took a swipe at Google during the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. Charles Crowell for The National
The head of the International Telecommunications Union took a swipe at Google during the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. Charles Crowell for The National

Hamadoun Touré, the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has lashed out at Google for "abusing its power".

While the spat between the two organisations is ostensibly about free speech, analysts see it mainly being about taxes that governments hope to impose over the internet.

Mr Touré took his swipe during the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which began yesterday in Dubai.

Over the past year, Google has embarked on a campaign against the WCIT, suggesting that proposals for changes to the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) being put forward for approval by the gathering would stifle freedom of speech, give governments greater control of the internet and hinder economic growth.

But analysts say Google's main objection is proposals put forward by some Arab and European telecoms operators to tax or introduce a fee for content providers such as Google and Facebook that use their networks.

Among these tax and fee proposals, the one that has garnered most media attention is that drawn up by the European Telecommunications Network Operators (Etno) association to profit from internet traffic.

While many say the Etno idea is unlikely to be put forward in Dubai, one delegate from the organisation has hinted at a surprise proposal from one of the countries taking part.

In a conference call last week, Vinton Cerf, whom Google describes as its chief internet evangelist and who is one of the founders of the internet, said such proposals would results in higher internet costs. "New businesses starting up would be seriously impacted to get their business off the ground especially when they need capital to pay for termination charges with every ISP in the world."

Mr Touré, however, countered yesterday that while Google claims it defends small businesses in the developing world, "you cannot take all consumers for a ride in this information society, you cannot fool anyone".

He added: "You cannot try to manipulate a whole constituency, that is abuse of power."

Many analysts dismiss the likelihood that a tax and fee proposal would garner enough support to be adopted.

"The last thing you want is taxed information. There is a need to making the internet as accessible as possible. The trouble is, all these telcos are vertically integrated operators, they have the infrastructure, content and services, they have made their money as monopolies," said Paul Budde, the managing director of BuddeComm.

"Now a lot of the services are moving OTT and people are no longer using them. So they are getting squeezed." OTT refers to the delivery of content by third parties, such as Netflix and Hulu, without the involvement of internet service providers other than to provide bandwidth.

The last WCIT was held in 1988 when participating member states reviewed the ITRs. Back then, there were just 4.3 million mobile accounts in the world. Today, there are more than 6 billion and 2.5 billion internet users.

"This is an incredibly powerful resource, this treaty is ensuring that the remaining 4.5 billion are connected to the internet," said Mr Touré.

Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, the director general of the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the president of the WCIT, emphasised the conference would focus on general principles.

"The conference will discuss critical and pivotal issues related to the ICT sector. It has gained significant media attention and the world is waiting for the outcomes. It is a landmark conference that will review ITRs which serves as a binding global treaty … the treaty sets out general principles," he said.

The UAE is leading Arab states in presenting recommendations and proposals to the ITU. There are 2,000 participants taking part from 160 countries and 193 member states of the ITU over the next two weeks.

thamid@thenational.ae