After WCIT, US lawmakers look for ways to advance Internet freedom

The ITU's recent meeting was a first step toward new Internet regulations, lawmakers and experts say

Countries pushing for international regulation of the Internet through the U.N. International Telecommunication Union will not quit after a partial victory at an ITU meeting in December, some Internet government experts told U.S. lawmakers.

The results of the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December are just a first step in a long-term battle over regulation and censorship of the Internet, Robert McDowell, a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, told members of three U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees Tuesday.

"The Internet, quite simply, is under assault," McDowell said. "As as result, freedom, prosperity and the potential to improve the human condition across the globe are at risk."

During WCIT, 89 countries voted to approve a treaty that according to some critics could encourage countries to censor Web content in the long term, while the U.S., U.K., Japan and 52 other countries declined to sign the document. The treaty calls on member states to "collectively endeavor" to ensure the security of networks and to "take necessary measures" to prevent spam. That vague language could lead some nations to snoop on Internet communications or limit free speech, critics have said.

The conference was a "rude awakening" for the U.S. and its allies pushing for an uncensored Internet, McDowell said.

Russia, China and other countries succeeded at WCIT in "upending decades of consensus" opposing international Internet regulation, McDowell added. "Proponents of multilateral, intergovernmental control of the Internet are patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved," he said.

Members of the three subcommittees, both Democrats and Republicans, presented a united front during the hearing, with all condemning international regulation of the Internet.

December's WCIT meeting was a "big success" for countries wanting the ITU to regulate the Internet, said Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican.

"The fact that the strong objections of the U.S. and its allies were simply pushed aside by a majority vote that consisted largely of developing countries led by China and Russia, is a loud and clear warning of what lies ahead," he said. "This struggle will be a permanent one. Those seeking to control the Internet will never stop. It is too valuable."

The U.S. government needs to take steps to "promote innovation and openness of the Internet around the globe," added Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat.

House members have released a draft bill that would make it U.S. policy to promote a global Internet "free from government control."

Several lawmakers asked what next steps U.S. policymakers and Internet freedom activists should take as diplomats face more Internet governance meetings in May and in 2014.

McDowell and other hearing witnesses called on representatives of the U.S. government to help developing nations engage in current Internet governance organizations as a way to head off efforts to create international regulations through the ITU.

Developing nations need to feel more involved in current multistakeholder groups that address Internet governance issues, said Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager of public policy for the Internet Society. U.S. and international Internet groups should also work with developing nations to help them build Internet infrastructure and expertise in their countries, she said.

"Dating back to the earliest days of the Internet's development, there was a keen recognition that, to be truly successful, the Internet needed advocates around the world that could sustain and build Internet infrastructure and, in doing so, would expand the Internet to their local communities -- whether in Silicon Valley or at a local university in Kenya," she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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