U.S. Congress deliberates keeping the internet “free of government control”

The proposed U.S. House of Representatives “Internet Governance Bill” has moved on to the full Energy and Commerce Committee after two days of markup and debate in the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. If passed into law, the bill would make it the “policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

The bill has sparked a surprising amount of controversy, given the strong support for an almost identical non-binding resolution passed by Congress last September, ahead of the UN World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Ultimately, the Subcommittee agreed to refer it to the full Committee, but not without a fight: Democrats dissented but agreed not to derail the process.

It seems that the debate over the “Internet Governance bill” has been prompted by concerns that by turning the non-binding resolution into law, the policies expressed in the bill would apply to domestic and not just foreign policy. When the ranking Democrat in the Subcommittee, Anna Eshoo, sent a letter to the Subcommittee’s Republican Chair outlining this concern and proposing that the language be amended to specify that the global internet should not be subject to “the control of international regulatory bodies” rather than “governmental control,” as the bill currently states, the Chairman refused.

The main point of contention is that the bill’s limitation on ‘regulatory bodies’ could be used domestically to undermine the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to regulate network neutrality, as form of “governmental control.” Likewise the bill could be used to repeal current laws that enable the U.S. government to defend against cyberattacks and violations of intellectual property, and counter child pornography. There is also concern that the bill could limit the U.S. State Department’s ability to conduct diplomacy if it is bound by law to a certain position.

At yesterday’s markup the Chairman insisted that the goal of the bill was not to violate domestic network neutrality regulation or alter any other domestic policies. In the Chairman’s words:

“We know how to draft legislation requiring the FCC to strike the network neutrality regulations, we drafted and passed that through the House last Congress…This legislation neither requires nor authorizes the FCC to take any action with respect to its network neutrality regulations or any other rules.” 

Now the bill will move to the full Energy and Commerce Committee, and staffers were instructed to submit “technical and conforming changes” to the draft legislation.

But the problems with the bill do not end within U.S. borders. The bill also refers to vague proposals and non-specific threats. For example, the bill states, “Proposals have been, and will likely continue to be, put forward at international regulatory bodies that would fundamentally alter the governance and operation of the Internet.” Without saying which bodies and proposals in particular, the bill seems paranoid and reinforces the UN-bashing rhetoric that may be popular in Congress but is harmful to broader U.S. foreign policy objectives.

As a joint letter from New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the Center for Democracy & Technology points out: “the text could be interpreted to signify U.S. opposition to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s intergovernmental expert group, which is conducting a comprehensive study on cybercrime, or Interpol’s Crimes Against Children Initiative. The United States currently participates in these forums, both of which could be considered ‘international regulatory bodies’ under this bill.”

Perhaps the most significant flaw in the bill, however, is that it assumes that the status quo of internet governance — in which the U.S. has more influence than any other country because of its relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — is just fine. When much of the world criticizes the current multistakeholder framework of internet governance as failing to fully meet the interests and needs of the global internet community, this bill will likely signal to the world that the U.S. is not serious about reform and could result in more, not fewer, attempts to find intergovernmental regulatory alternatives.

If the bill was genuinely aimed at supporting the multistakeholder model of internet governance, it would lend support to relevant actors in the U.S. government who are preparing for key meetings for the future of internet governance, such as the World Telecommunication Policy Forum in Geneva in May 2013 and the World Summit on Information Society review process, taking place between 2013 and 2015. These meetings will provide critical opportunities to address global concerns and work towards a more sustainable model of multistakeholder governance of the internet.

Rather than establishing a high-level policy position as law, passing another resolution reaffirming support for the multistakeholder model in light of current challenges, like the WTPF, might be more effective and appropriate. This would provide the U.S. Department of State and other relevant departments the guidance and flexibility to navigate these complex issues as they arise.

Access will continue to track the bill and provide updates and analysis.