U.S. “Internet Governance Bill” advances to the full House of Representatives with modifications

The proposed U.S. House of Representatives “Internet Governance Bill” was approved by the full Energy and Commerce Committee today and will now move on to the full House of Representatives. The revised draft of the bill would make it the “policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

This draft is nearly identical to the draft that passed the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology last week, with one important amendment: it removes the phrase “promote a global Internet free from government control” from the policy statement, and with it, much of the partisan divide over this bill. Democrats had previously objected to the aforementioned phrase out of concern that it could be applied to domestic policy and undermine the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to regulate network neutrality by opening the door to classification of the FCC as a form of “governmental control.” With that contentious language removed, this bill may move fairly quickly to adoption with bipartisan support.

Access supports the bill’s intentions to preserving and advancing the multistakeholder model of internet governance — genuine and inclusive participation in decision making by government, the private sector, and civil society, with individual users playing an important role. However, we feel that further amendments to the draft text are needed to make this a stronger piece of legislation. The bill’s most significant shortcoming is its failure to recognize that there is a need to improve upon the current multistakeholder framework.

Much of the world criticizes the status quo as falling short of fully meeting the interests and needs of the global internet community. A truly meaningful piece of legislation would make it U.S. policy to “enhance” the multistakeholder model, not merely “preserve” and “advance” it. This minor amendment could signal to the international community that the U.S. is serious about reform and willing to work constructively towards a more inclusive and democratic multistakeholder model.

The phrase “successful multistakeholder model” will also likely antagonize potential allies in the developing world, who have not yet experienced the fruits of its “success” (e.g., affordable, secure access to broadband). Removing the word “successful” is therefore advisable.

Additionally, the proposed “findings” section of the bill remains unchanged and therefore suffers from the same flaws we previously highlighted. Specifically, its references to vague threats “at international regulatory bodies that would fundamentally alter the governance and operation of the Internet” are overbroad and reinforce the UN-bashing rhetoric that is harmful to global discussions over internet policy. Referencing upcoming debates, such as the UN World Telecommunications Policy Forum (WTPF) or review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10) as two opportunities to “preserve and advance” the multistakeholder model would have been welcome.

Furthermore, the proposed “findings” section still contains the contentious “free from government control” phrase, which is problematic for groups that consider a degree of government regulation necessary to protect user rights, such as privacy, network neutrality, and affordable access. While omitting this language from the policy section resolved the potential conflict with the FCC and other agencies, it did not resolve this fundamental question.

If passed into law, this bill could be useful in advocacy for more inclusive and democratic internet governance moving forward. For example, if the newly formed UN Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation or the WSIS+10 process lead to recommendations for more inclusive governance, yet still preserve the multistakeholder model, advocates could potentially leverage this new law to encourage the U.S. to support reform. Despite this potential use, Access continues to believe that a non-binding resolution would be a more appropriate tool, empowering diplomats and other representatives with guidance while enabling flexibility.

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