Google pushes back on the ‘sender pays principle’

Following the renewed plea by European operators for video streamers to contribute to the cost of telecoms infrastructure, Google delivered a riposte.

Matt Brittin, Google’s President for EMEA, took part in a panel discussion at the FT Tech and Politics Forum, titled ‘The Future of the EU Internet ecosystem – How should all digital actors contribute to a gigabit future?’ The other panellists were from Orange, the Italian government and BEREC, the telecoms industry group most conspicuously championing the idea that the major providers of streaming video should compensate operators for the burden they place on their networks.

In his prepared remarks, Brittin started by stressing the need for an open internet. This seems to have been designed to set the scene for one of Google’s major objections to the ‘sender pays principle’, which is how Brittin characterised the matter at hand, which operators refer to as ‘fair contribution.

“When we talk about Google or YouTube traffic, we forget this is about the open internet – creators, publishers, developers, SMEs,” said Brittin. “All this amounts to an economic surplus which is distributed to all the internet users and businesses across Europe. Google’s consumer products alone generate €420 billion a year in value for Europeans.”

He went on to outline how much Google itself spends on infrastructure associated with telecoms, which includes billion of euros on datacentres, subsea cables and digital content caches. That led to an overview of ways in which Google already partners with European telcos, especially in the areas of public cloud and the mobile edge.

All this pre-amble eventually culminated in Brittin addressing the matter at hand. Introducing a sender pays principle is not a new idea and would upend many of the principles of the open internet,” he concluded. “These arguments are similar to those we heard ten or more years ago and we have not seen new data that changes the situation.

“[It] could have a negative impact on consumers, especially at a time of price increases: BEUC’s latest report argues a network fee payment system could potentially translate into measures that effectively discriminate between different types of traffic and infringe the rights of end users. There are many questions to answer about how this would work in practice and how it would fit into the existing legal framework supporting the open internet.”

While all of Brittin’s objections have some validity, even the sum of them falls well short of delivering a fatal blow to the European operators’ case. The net neutrality implications are at best insinuated by Google and the BEUC report, as are any other negative impacts on consumers. The strongest stated objections refer more to legal due process, but it seems clear that will be followed.

By referring to the age of this debate, Brittin was presumably trying to infer that if it was such a big problem it would have been tackled by now. But data traffic attributable to streaming video has grown exponentially in the past decade so that objection is weak. There will be plenty more public debate on this matter as the start of the EU review approaches, with billions of euros at stake, but the EU will take a lot of convincing to introduce major legislation that will come with serious geopolitical implications.


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