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At House Hearing, Few Answers About the Future of Internet Governance

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, February 5 2013

An international conference on telecommunications held in Dubai in December has set the stage for a running political fight over control of the Internet, witnesses told members of the House of Representatives in a joint committee hearing on Tuesday.

The United States, witnesses told lawmakers, should stay on the side of what's called the "multi-stakeholder" model. The way things now work, several organizations — many of which are based in the United States and including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which operates thanks to several agreements with the U.S. government — manage long-term planning for the growth and maintenance of the Internet, like how to allocate IP addresses and track who is authorized to register domain names. But while organizations like ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force are supposedly open to everyone, their composition skews white, American, and European. Several witnesses told lawmakers that the U.S. should do more to help people from the developing world get involved in the way the Internet is developed. If it does not, countries hoping that Internet governance will become the purview of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union — where each member state has a vote, the input of private citizens or organizations is reduced, and agreements are binding — might have their way.

"The Internet is under assault," said Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell. "As a result, freedom, prosperity and the potential to improve the human condition across the globe are at risk."

"Proponents of multilateral intergovernmental control of the Internet are patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved," he continued.

A key constituency for the U.S. in the fight will be democracies in the developing world, where Internet policy is defined by questions like how to pay for infrastructure rather than questions of censorship or free expression. The next forum will be the World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum, scheduled to take place in May, ahead of the planned ITU Plenipotentiary Conference scheduled for 2014.

"We want to work with like-minded countries so that the 2014 Plenipotentiary does not become a nightmare for those who believe in freedom," said Bitenge Ndemo, permanent secretary in the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications. Ndemo, who testified via Internet video, suggested that some other African countries were "coerced" into signing a controversial treaty drawn up at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December. The U.S. and 54 other ITU members did not sign that treaty.

One of the concerns about the current model for coming up with proposed changes to the Internet is that decisions are made at a series of far-flung meetings held throughout the year, generally in North America and Europe. The meetings are open for anyone to attend, but the cost of airfare and hotel could be too much for engineers and policy wonks schlepping there from Africa or South Asia.

In his testimony, Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, suggested that the State Department and Congress should create a fund to support the travel and registration of both civil society groups and small countries that otherwise could not afford to participate in international conferences.

Feld, who was part of the U.S. civil society delegation at the Dubai conference, also cautioned that some developing countries did not necessarily support the WCIT-12 treaty because they supported censorship, but because they had more practical concerns.

"When I asked a fellow activist from the Africa bloc why those countries were supporting the treaty, he said many families cannot call home to Sudan using phone cards because of sanctions," Feld explained.

Ahead of the next series of opinion-shaping policy conferences about the Internet, it's still unclear what the consequences will be after the tumultuous treaty-making event in Dubai. The Dubai treaty will not take effect until January 2015, and it's unclear how, if at all, the new language could lead to the implementation of Internet restrictions.

In the past, Feld noted, ITU regulations on telecommunications had never approached questions of content or extending the controls of one country into another country.

"Nothing in the ITRs could give a country justification to regulate prank calls or unwanted phone solicitations," he explained.

That changed with the new WCIT treaty, which signatories might interpret to regulate the content that travels over the Internet, not just the shape of a telecommunications network itself.

With the new WCIT treaty, a "regulatory Rubicon" has been crossed, McDowell said.

Draft legislation proposed by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, would state that it "is the policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet."

The hearing was held jointly by the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.