The House Energy & Commerce Committee Communications Subcommittee hearing on potential international government governance on the Internet was one of the most bipartisan in memory, with everybody in agreement that government oversight of the Internet is a bad idea.
Legislators were united in their opposition to giving the UN-created International Telecommunications Union regulatory oversight of the Internet. The vehicle for that would be an upcoming treaty conference in Dubai -- the World Conference on International Telecommunications-- where some of the 193 members, led by Russia and China, are proposing extending ITU's oversight of international phone traffic, to Internet traffic.
Other countries could support more ITU governance as a way to replace dwindling payments for terminating international phone traffic with a per-click fee for terminating Internet traffic.
Republican and Democrat alike said a top-down, government-controlled approach, rather than the current multistakeholder model, would be a threat to the Internet economy and political speech and a mechanism for those regimes to restrict content they believed was a threat to their political control or cultural norms.
Ambassador Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, said he thought that that the most egregious proposal, spearheaded by the Russian Federation, of creating an entire new regulatory framework for Internet governance had been turned away, but added that did not mean there was not still cause for concern and vigilance.
There was clearly a lot of that concern on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) was a lead voice on a House resolution introduced Wednesday in support of the multistakeholder model -- Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the subcommittee said Thursday he was hopeful of a floor vote soon on the resolution. She said that an ITU-centric model could turn the next Arab spring into a Russian Winter. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), whose district includes Google and other Silicon Valley companies, said it could balkanize the net, encourage censorship and "uproot innovation and transparency."
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who was on the hearing's first panel with Verveer, said that beyond that frontal assault, perhaps more threatening was the "camouflaged subterfuge" of other proposals both at the upcoming conference and beyond. He said allowing the model pushed by Russia and China would create a tyrannical walled garden where they could snuff out political dissent.
And beyond the political and speech issues, there was also an economic toll. At a minimum, he said, it creates uncertainty, which drives up costs. At a maximum, it could create a bifurcated Internet where cloud computing, for example, could be jeopardized.
Vint Cerf, VP and chief Internet evangelist for Google and one of widely recognized "fathers" of the Internet, said during a second panel that ITU-centric governance of the Internet was potentially disastrous. He said that limits to free flow of information could become the norm, hurting innovation and American business. He said it would be akin to putting regulatory handcuffs on the Internet, with a remote agency holding the keys.
Cerf said he was most concerned about Russia and China, but also about Brazil and India, which had expressed interest in government control.
Cerf said none of the ITU standards should be mandatory, and there should be no new interconnection fees -- the proposal to allow governments to collect fees from Internet content providers, such as Netflix and YouTube -- for terminating international traffic, as ITU members collect for terminating phone traffic.
Verveer said the hearing itself was an important signal to send to the world that the U.S. is in agreement that top-down governance is a nonstarter. Cerf agreed.
Verveer pointed out that whatever ITU approves as changes to the treaty, no member state was bound by it--there is no enforcement mechanism.
Cerf said the U.S. should not "run away" from the United Nations, but lead it toward the multistakeholder process by making that process more open and effective.
Verveer did take some tough questioning from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) over how much support the U.S. had from other countries for preserving the multistakeholder model. Stearns said he thought the U.S. was 9 votes short.
Verveer said there would not be a vote per se, but a consensus on changes. Stearns pressed him, asking how many votes the U.S. had for consensus. Verveer said he did not have a figure, but he did say that Japan, Canada, Mexico and many European countries were supportive.
The takeaway from the hearing was that the U.S. and other countries need to remain vigilant and work toward insuring that the treaty does not give the ITU Internet governance powers, and, secondarily, that they be on guard for stealth attacks through other, less obvious, proposals or changes to the treaty's wording, a warning McDowell sounded loud and clear.