House Speaks Out Against Government-Controlled Internet

The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved a resolution that urges President Obama to resist any international attempts to regulate the Internet. The United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will meet in Dubai this December and initiatives that will put the Internet under greater government control are expected to be up for vote. The committee-approved resolution, introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), is intended to show the international community that the United States is united behind an open and innovative Internet, free from government control.

But the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), the ITU meeting that will take place this December, is shrouded in secrecy. Access to reports is limited and the public is given no chance to speak out against rulings that will greatly alter how the Internet is used. Frustrated by the lack of transparency in the ITU, Mercatus Center policy analysts Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado created, a site that publishes leaked documents from the conference.

“Like most folks who follow tech policy, we’ve been concerned about the upcoming conference, especially since so many credible and sober experts have been sounding the alarm about disturbing proposals by certain member states,” wrote Brito. “However, we were frustrated because none of these proposals are public. They’re not classified or sensitive; it’s just that the ITU doesn’t make them public.”

One of the documents posted by revealed a plan to effectively tax international Internet traffic. International network providers have long complained that U.S. content providers should be required to shoulder some of the cost of usage. Major content providers like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Apple would be targeted by this tax, which would be paid to state-owned Internet providers around the world. The leaked document was written by the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), which is a Brussels-based lobby group that’s found 35 nations in favor of these fees.

ETNO defended its position by referring to the “principle of sending party network pays,” which is the system used to decide which end of the line pays for international phone calls. If this principle is adopted, content creators serving international customers will be left with the bill and the Internet’s legacy of “peered” traffic will be a thing of the past.

Just like an income tax decreases marginal returns of an hour of work, this tax will lower the incentive for U.S.-based Internet services to allow international connections. This is especially probable in developing nations with state-run Internet networks that could levy too high of a tax and make the connection unprofitable for content providers. Essentially, developing countries could be cut off from major parts of a more balkanized Internet.

The vote on this and other controversial measures will occur in December at the WCIT. These votes will determine the future of the International Telecommunications Regulations, a short treaty that currently guides international communications. Fortunately, the House has urged the President and all members of Congress to form a cohesive opposition to any effort to curb the freedom of the Internet.

Headed by entrepreneur-in-residence at the Harvard Business School Terry Kramer, the U.S. delegation to the WCIT will certainly follow the lead of the House’s latest resolution. But it is important to remember that while the free-market Internet may be defended by the United States, the ITU has 193 member countries and each has just one vote.

Make sure to check out Declan McCullagh and Larry Downes' article on CNET.