June 1, 2012

Congress Vows To Fight U.N. Bid For Internet Control

Members of Congress expressed strong opposition on Thursday to proposals to bring the Internet under centralized United Nations control, saying they are committed to preventing the global agency from gaining authority over Internet content and infrastructure.

The pledge came during a congressional hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which included testimony from various U.S. officials and technology leaders. All of the witnesses voiced opposition to placing the Internet under the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency that governs telecommunications systems.

"There's a strong, bipartisan consensus within the administration and Congress that we must resist efforts from some countries to impose a top-down governance of the Internet," said Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) during the hearing.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA) said that "any international authority over the Internet is troublesome, particularly if that effort is being led by countries where censorship is the norm.”

Ambassador Philip Verveer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, reaffirmed the Obama administration´s opposition to global Web governance.

"In all bilateral encounters and multilateral meetings, the United States consistently opposes the extension of intergovernmental controls over the Internet," he said in prepared remarks.

“Remitting the Internet to intergovernmental control — whether the ITU or otherwise — would produce two very bad outcomes. It inevitably would diminish the dynamism of the Internet...and would open the way for the introduction of extraneous considerations, the most noxious of which would be censorship or content controls by repressive regimes.”

Thursday´s hearing comes ahead of an ITU treaty-writing conference set for December in Dubai, where delegations from 193 nations will come together to discuss whether to turn over governance of the Internet to the U.N.

U.S. officials and lawmakers are concerned the meeting could turn the Internet into a political bargaining chip, empowering efforts by countries like China, Russia and Iran to strip away Internet freedoms and isolate their populations.

Rep. Blackburn praised the Obama administration's efforts to prevent giving an international governing body authority over the Internet.

"We may have our differences on domestic telecommunications policy, but having those policies decided at the international level would be the worst thing that could happen," said Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) during the hearing.

Vinton Cerf, considered one of the fathers of the Internet and now vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, warned the House committee that any move toward top-down control dictated by governments could stifle Internet innovation and growth.

That approach "promotes exclusion, hidden deals, potential for indiscriminate surveillance and tight centralized management,” he said.

“Because the ITU answers only to its member states — rather than to citizens, civil society, academia, the tech industry, and the broader private sector — there´s a great need to insert transparency and accountability into this process and to prevent expansion of ITU or UN authority over the operation of the Internet,” he said in his prepared remarks.

A bipartisan group of House members introduced a resolution on Wednesday formally rejecting proposals to bring the Internet under U.N. control, vowing instead to maintain the current "multi-stakeholder" model of governance.

“This resolution reaffirms our belief and sends a strong message that international control over the Internet will uproot the innovation, openness and transparency enjoyed by nearly 2.3 billion users around the world,” the resolution read.

"In many ways, this is a referendum on the future of the Internet," said Representative Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), a sponsor of the resolution, during Thursday´s hearing.

"If this power grab is successful, I'm concerned that the next Arab Spring will instead become a Russia Winter where free speech is chilled, not encouraged, and the Internet becomes a wasteland of unfilled hopes, dreams and opportunities," she said.

The Internet currently has fairly loose oversight, with technical bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the World Wide Web Consortium primarily overseeing Internet infrastructure and management.

But the United States holds significant influence with those bodies.

During December´s gathering in Dubai, the delegations will renegotiate a U.N. treaty last reviewed in 1988, and debate proposals that would consolidate control over the Internet with the ITU.

"During the treaty negotiations, the most lethal threat to Internet freedom may not come from a full-frontal assault but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of inter-governmental powers," said Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican.

Proposals out of the Middle East would alter the definition of telecommunications in such a way that could include the Internet, and would suddenly sweep an entire industry under ITU rules.

Mr. McDowell strongly rejected claims from ITU leadership that no nations have proposed expanding the ITU's jurisdiction to the Internet.

"An infinite number of avenues exist to accomplish the same goal, and it is camouflaged subterfuge that proponents of Internet freedom should watch for most vigilantly," he said.

The United States is concerned that authoritarian regimes will promote their initiatives by pledging to support proposals from developing nations that want tariffs on content-heavy Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix.

"Some ITU officials have dismissed our concerns over these issues as mere election year politics, and nothing could be further from the truth," McDowell said.

"The threats are real and not imagined."

The U.S. will accelerate talks with other countries in a bid to block expansion of ITU's authority, with some 50 bilateral meetings set to take place before the December conference.

"We're investing a lot of effort in trying to be in the best possible position to explain why these kinds of things would be a bad idea," Ambassador Verveer said.

The United States assembled its core delegation a few weeks ago.  The group includes members of the State Department, Commerce Department, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, FCC and NASA.

President Obama told Congress earlier this week he intended to assign ambassadorial rank to Terry Kramer, who spent years as an executive with Vodafone Group Plc., to lead the U.S. delegation, Verveer said.

Kramer now teaches at Harvard University, and serves as a board member or adviser for various telecom companies and nonprofit organizations.

Additional delegation members will be added in September.