House Subcommittees Meet to Preserve Internet Freedom

No congressional gridlock on Web governance

There may be gridlock in Congress on most issues, but making sure that governments such as Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are blocked from balkanizing the Internet is not one of them.

No fewer than three House subcommittees met jointly Tuesday to figure out how to preserve a global Internet free from government control. 

The fear that some countries pose an increasing threat to Internet freedom has been growing, made all the more real last December when the U.S. and 59 other nations refused to sign an international treaty that would, among other things, allow countries to block spam, which the U.S. and co-signees interpreted as backdoor censorship. Despite strong, united opposition from 110 U.S. representatives, including tech industry execs from Google, AT&T and others, 89 other countries, such as Russia and China, signed the treaty.

While the treaty is binding only to those countries that signed it, congressional leaders and administration officials are alarmed that upcoming international meetings this May and next year will give governments more time to press for moving control of the Internet from the current multistakeholder model to the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations.

“The Internet is under assault,” Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell (R), who attended the December meeting in Dubai, told Congress. He reminded Congress that Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared it was his goal and the goal of the country’s allies to establish international control of the Internet through the ITU. “In Dubai, Putin largely achieved his goal.”

“That would be like putting the Taliban in charge of women’s rights,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade.

There’s not a lot Congress can do, but it can pass resolutions, like it did last summer when both the House and the Senate unanimously voted to uphold the multistakeholder Internet governance model.

“Other countries not only knew of the resolution, but knew where the U.S. was coming from. It had a substantial impact on treaty negotiations. When Congress speaks, the world listens,” David Gross, former U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, U.S. Dept. of State, told subcommittee members.

“[Another resolution] would help fuel the conversation,” McDowell said.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology, has already begun to circulate a draft bill that would make it the policy of the U.S. “to promote a global Internet free from government control.”

The U.S. could also work to bring more countries into the multistakeholder governance process, panelists told the subcommittee.

“Some countries feel left out,” said McDowell. “We should immediately engage with all countries to encourage a dialogue among all interested parties, including governments, civil society, the private sector, nonprofits and the ITU, to broaden the multistakeholder umbrella. [We want] to provide those who feel disenfranchised from the current structure with a meaningful role in shaping the evolution of the Internet.”