US House of Representatives Bill on IG unnecessary and potentially harmful to diplomacy

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass a bill on internet governance that was superfluous, misguided, and potentially harmful to ongoing international negotiations on internet governance.

As we’ve noted before, H.R. 1580, otherwise known as the “Global Internet Freedom Bill,” is an unnecessary piece of legislation that would make it the “policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

The legislation starts from the flawed premise that presumes that sufficiency and success of the existing multistakeholder model of internet governance, at the expense of legitimate grievances from many stakeholders. Although Access firmly believes that the multistakeholder model is indeed the best model for internet governance, we also believe there is a need to enhance the current model to make it more inclusive and diverse–a process that should involve validating and addressing legitimate concerns expressed by those in the developing world and elsewhere. The legislation’s proposed policy of reserving and advancing the status quo is insufficient.

Additionally, we consider the legislation’s “finding” that the internet should be “free from government control” to be inherently problematic. Access is firmly opposed to governmental control that would interfere with or infringe upon user rights, such as regulations on content or routing. However, there are some forms of governmental regulation that can protect user rights, such as net neutrality and intermediary liability protections. In some parts of the world, H.R. 1580’s “finding” may be interpreted to mean that the House of Representatives merely feels the internet should be free of control by any government other than the US.

This brings us to why this weak and misguided legislation is especially counterproductive at this particular moment. This week in Geneva, the world’s governments are participating in the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF), organized by the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU). On the same day that H.R. 1580 passed unanimously in the US House, a delegation of US policymakers was participating in a WTPF debate on a proposed resolution on the “role of governments in the multistakeholder model of internet governance.”

Despite very problematic aspects, the former Brazilian proposal reveals legitimate concerns that resonate with many middle income and developing countries. The head of the US delegation, Danny Sepulveda, recognized these concerns in a statement, “Our friends from Brazil… emphasize in their statement an approach to Internet Governance in which the government is one of many stakeholders, but [also] one in which the governments should have the capacity necessary to participate in a meaningful way in Internet Governance institutions and in that underlying intent we are in full agreement.”

The House’s misguided endorsement that “It is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful [emphasis ours] multistakeholder model that governs the Internet” already signals to other countries that the US may not be a serious partner in global negotiations on internet governance reform. But if this legislation were to pass into law, it would be more problematic than mere diplomatic ‘signaling.’

If H.R. 1580 were law, the US delegation in Geneva may have had its hands tied in even discussing the Brazilian resolution before them. Were it to become the law–rather than the policy–of the United States to reject government involvement in internet governance, the US delegation at WTPF and other major international fora would find their diplomatic capacity constrained, precluding them from finding common ground necessary for building consensus and negotiating acceptable outcomes.

Access believes that it is useful for the US Congress to take internet governance reform seriously. If Congress is determined to take action at this time, we continue to believe that a non-binding resolution, which recognizes the importance of the multistakeholder model while acknowledging the shortcomings of the status quo, would be a more appropriate Congressional action, one that would empower diplomats and other representatives with guidance, while enabling flexibility. Luckily, it seems highly unlikely that H.R. 1580 will be taken up by the US Senate or become law–but it’s worth remembering that even proposed legislation can have practical policy implications.