The House Energy & Commerce Committee Communications
Subcommittee hearing on potential international government governance on the
Internet was one of the most bipartisan in memory, with everybody in agreement
that government oversight of the Internet is a bad idea.
Legislators were united in their opposition to giving the
UN-created International Telecommunications Union regulatory oversight of the
Internet. The vehicle for that would be an upcoming treaty conference in Dubai --
the World Conference on International Telecommunications-- where some of the
193 members, led by Russia and China, are proposing extending ITU's oversight
of international phone traffic, to Internet traffic.
Other countries could support more ITU governance as a way
to replace dwindling payments for terminating international phone traffic with
a per-click fee for terminating Internet traffic.
Republican and Democrat alike said a top-down, government-controlled
approach, rather than the current multistakeholder model, would be a threat to
the Internet economy and political speech and a mechanism for those regimes to
restrict content they believed was a threat to their political control or
Ambassador Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of
state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information
policy, said he thought that that the most egregious proposal, spearheaded by
the Russian Federation, of creating an entire new regulatory framework for
Internet governance had been turned away, but added that did not mean there was
not still cause for concern and vigilance.
There was clearly a lot of that concern on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) was a lead voice on a House
resolution introduced Wednesday in support of the multistakeholder model -- Rep.
Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the subcommittee said Thursday he was hopeful of
a floor vote soon on the resolution. She said that an ITU-centric model could
turn the next Arab spring into a Russian Winter. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.),
whose district includes Google and other Silicon Valley companies, said it
could balkanize the net, encourage censorship and "uproot innovation and
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who was on the hearing's
first panel with Verveer, said that beyond that frontal assault, perhaps more
threatening was the "camouflaged subterfuge" of other proposals both
at the upcoming conference and beyond. He said allowing the model pushed by
Russia and China would create a tyrannical walled garden where they could snuff
out political dissent.
And beyond the political and speech issues, there was also
an economic toll. At a minimum, he said, it creates uncertainty, which drives
up costs. At a maximum, it could create a bifurcated Internet where cloud
computing, for example, could be jeopardized.
Vint Cerf, VP and chief Internet evangelist for Google and
one of widely recognized "fathers" of the Internet, said during a
second panel that ITU-centric governance of the Internet was potentially
disastrous. He said that limits to free flow of information could become the
norm, hurting innovation and American business. He said it would be akin to
putting regulatory handcuffs on the Internet, with a remote agency holding the
Cerf said he was most concerned about Russia and China, but
also about Brazil and India, which had expressed interest in government
Cerf said none of the ITU standards should be mandatory, and
there should be no new interconnection fees -- the proposal to allow
governments to collect fees from Internet content providers, such as Netflix
and YouTube -- for terminating international traffic, as ITU members collect
for terminating phone traffic.
Verveer said the hearing itself was an important signal to
send to the world that the U.S. is in agreement that top-down governance is a
nonstarter. Cerf agreed.
Verveer pointed out that whatever ITU approves as changes to
the treaty, no member state was bound by it--there is no enforcement mechanism.
Cerf said the U.S. should not "run away" from the
United Nations, but lead it toward the multistakeholder process by making that
process more open and effective.
Verveer did take some tough questioning from Rep. Cliff
Stearns (R-Fla.) over how much support the U.S. had from other countries for
preserving the multistakeholder model. Stearns said he thought the U.S. was 9
Verveer said there would not be a vote per se, but a
consensus on changes. Stearns pressed him, asking how many votes the U.S. had
for consensus. Verveer said he did not have a figure, but he did say that
Japan, Canada, Mexico and many European countries were supportive.
The takeaway from the hearing was that the U.S. and other
countries need to remain vigilant and work toward insuring that the treaty does
not give the ITU Internet governance powers, and, secondarily, that they be on
guard for stealth attacks through other, less obvious, proposals or changes to
the treaty's wording, a warning McDowell sounded loud and clear.