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At Congressional Hearing, a Case for the Internet As Rough Consensus and Running Code

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, May 31 2012

A House subcommittee focusing on telecommunications issues on Thursday was the scene of rare bipartisanship between committee Republicans and the Obama Administration as the committee held a hearing on the prospect of a United Nations agency taking over governance of the Internet.

A gathering of government officials from the 193 member countries of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union is scheduled to meet in Dubai this December to decide on whether to approve proposals by the governments of China, Russia, India, Brazil and several other countries to become more involved in controlling key aspects of the global network's infrastructure.

The bipartisan line on this from U.S. lawmakers is that when the ITU and delegations from member countries call for international control of the Internet, they mean to fundamentally overturn the way the Internet is currently run from the bottom up.

The Internet is effectively run by a series of committees of individuals, volunteers, academics, engineers, companies in the private sector, and civil society groups in a transparent process. Representative groups include the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Steering Group, the Internet Research task Force, and of course ICANN, the international group that oversees the Internet addressing system.

Several countries, including many in the Middle East, want their governments to be more involved in the technical aspects of running the Internet, and, U.S. officials charge, would usurp the functions currently served by these groups. The process by which they would exert this control is through the ITU, which has historically overseen international agreements over traditional telecommunications and telephony networks, and not the Internet.

U.S. officials say that the move would implement an inappropriate, slow-moving regulatory structure upon a dynamic, fast-changing system and could throttle innovation by fundamentally strangling the open nature of the Net.

The White House in early May issued a statement on its blog also condemning foreign governments' attempts to insert themselves into the process. The concern: A Balkanized Internet with different standards established that would create national Internets instead.

"It would be inappropriate to apply an international regulatory scheme developed for the
1980s telephone networks to the vibrant and technologically diverse Internet," said subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden in his opening statement to Thursday's hearing. "Such a regulatory regime ignores the reality of the architecture of the Internet. Unlike traditional
telephony where the routing of circuit switched calls could easily be tracked, the networks that comprise the Internet do not adhere to political boundaries. Given the diversity of networks that make up the modern Internet, any implementation of an international
regulatory regime would quickly become so complex as to become unmanageable."

Most of the other members of the subcommittee on Thursday agreed, and asked the administration officials who testified how they could help. For her part, Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) introduced a resolution on Wednesday to express the sentiment. She has a small bipartisan cosponsor list of four of her committee colleagues: Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who represents Palo Alto; Fred Upton, (R-Mich;) Greg Walden, (R-Ore;) and Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.)

Vint Cerf, the so-called "Father of the Internet," and Google's vice president and chief Internet evangelist, said that the members of the committee were already helping by airing the issues and introducing their resolution opposing the move to change the way the Internet is run, a sentiment also voiced by Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell and the U.S. Ambassador to the ITU and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philip Verveer, a distinguished veteran of U.S. telecom policy who's been leading the administration's efforts to build a solid coalition at the IT meeting in December.

It became clear during the hearing that its purpose was to build the U.S. case for preserving the way the Internet is run by pointing to the transformative effect that it's already had on many citizens around the world.

Various members of the committee talked about its role in fostering the Arab Spring, and about its economic impact, like helping their constituent farmers and small businesses find new markets for their goods. McDowell talked about how the global network is empowering people in third world countries to perform basic tasks. The Internet is the greatest invention since fire, he said.

For her part, Bono Mack said: "The Internet is the biggest tool for freedom that mankind has ever seen."