Some of Europe’s largest telecommunication operators want the power to levy new charges on internet companies such as Google to distribute their content over the internet.

The operators argue that the move will help them recoup the billions of euros they are investing in new high-speed broadband networks. The position of operators such as Telecom Italia and Deutsche Telekom brings to Europe a contentious debate about the future of the internet that has risen to the top of the regulatory agenda in the US.

Dubbed “net neutrality” in North America, the issue has pitted telecoms companies against internet visionaries who claim that a new charging structure would undermine the principle of openness on which the internet was built, and prompt internet companies to charge consumers more for their services. Ricardo Perissich, head of regulatory affairs at Telecom Italia, said: “This issue is coming to Europe as well.

“We are all concerned about this new emerging competition and we have raised this issue with the European Commission.”

The lobbying comes during the European Commission’s review of the telecoms regulatory framework. Mr Perissich added: “We are telling the Commission that this is an issue that should be looked at as they revise the telecoms regulation. These new actors will have to be recognised in the new framework.”

European operators are poised to invest about €80bn (£55bn) over the next three to four years in high-speed, or so-called next generation, networks. They argue that profitable internet companies such as Google should be charged higher fees to help pay for the networks. The operators also argue that these fees are necessary as video services spread. But internet companies say any extra levy – they already pay for the data they push out – would stop tomorrow’s Yahoos from even starting.

“It would stop innovation on lots of fronts,” said Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, an internet video network.

Kai Uwe Ricke, Deutsche Telekom chief executive, recently told Wirtschaftswoche, the business newspaper: “These [online] companies should realise that it’s us who will in the future guarantee network quality for their new applications.”

But, not all European incumbents are pushing as hard as Deutsche Telekom. BT in the UK said it was satisfied with the regulatory arrangements but conceded that this view could change. France Telecom, meanwhile, rejected “net neutrality” as “an American debate”.

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