Joint Hearing on WCIT Reminds US to Stay Focused on Internet Freedom

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a joint hearing Tuesday morning that addressed the results of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) 2012 in Dubai this past December. Despite protests from the United States and its allies, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations body, approved updates to the International Telecommunications Regulations, which open the door to internationally sanctioned regulation of the internet.

Previous ITU treaties did not include language, which would alter the multi stakeholder governance model, which has been successful since the internet’s inception. Anticipating efforts by some misguided countries and telecommunication organizations to push proposals allowing for regulation and censorship of the internet, Congress passed unanimous resolutions, S. Con. Res. 50 and H. Con. Res. 127 reiterating America’s dedication to a free, open, multi-stakeholder internet.

Even though the US, along with countries such as the UK, Australia, and Kenya, made clear that they would not sign any treaty authorizing regulation of the web, the ITU member nations approved a treaty that would allow for just that. As a result, the US and some 54 other nations refused to approve the agreement.  In the aftermath of this unfortunate event, the House committees’ hearing addressed how to combat additional efforts by countries, such as China and Russia, to expand state control of the internet.

Prior to the hearing Rep. Greg Walden wrote an OpEd for the Examiner, which highlighted that the multi-stakeholder model “provides flexibility to adapt to a constantly changing world while preventing governmental or non-governmental actors from controlling the design of the network or the content it carries.  “  In the hearing Rep. Greg Walden, reiterated his belief that the internet should remain unburdened by government intervention, and Commissioner McDowell repeated his consistently expressed belief that those pushing for internet regulation are “patient and persistent incrementalists” and agreed with other witnesses, such as Ambassador David Gross, that the fight is just now beginning as proponents of internet control will push to capitalize on gains made at the WCIT.

Representatives from all present subcommittees made it clear that they hope to formulate the resolutions of last year into concrete law during the present session. Rep. Walden has announced intentions to introduce a bill, and Rep. Chris Smith pointed to his recently introduced H.R. 491 Global Online Freedom Act. GOFA would, among other things, promote freedom of expression on the internet and “prevent US information technology companies from collaborating with foreign dictators in their efforts to censor the Internet and spy on their own citizens.”

Representatives and witnesses also discussed the need to work with developing countries to show them that an open internet, not an overregulated one, is the key to success and growth. Ambassador Gross noted that while there is certainly no silver bullet when dealing with the concerns of developing nations, continuing to reach out and argue our point with individual nations and at global forums is critical to seeing the multi-stakeholder model continue. Commissioner McDowell additionally noted that America needs to develop allies in non-governmental divisions of the economies’ of developing countries we hope to convince.

The joint hearing presented a sense of unity and common cause in the attitudes and statements of all present. Democrats, Republicans, and the five witnesses representing many different sectors all expressed opposition to the expansion of internet regulation in the updated ITRs and a commitment to fighting for the preservation of the free and open internet as perhaps the single greatest agent of economic and social advancement around the globe.

While this solidarity is commendable, the US needs to examine some of its own regulatory pushes.  Rep. Anna Eshoo has held the line on International government regulation of the internet, but in the US she has promoted net neutrality, a clear example of the government trying to control Internet traffic.  She often sites companies like Netflix as those who could be harmed without the implementation of net neutrality, but now Netflix is the one requesting the fast lane, which net neutrality would outlaw.  As the US looks to protect internet freedom abroad, it should set the same example at home.