House Republicans and Democrats spoke with one voice Tuesday as they talked about the threats to global Internet freedom coming out of the International Telecommunication Union WCIT telecom treaty in Dubai last December.
One of the key takeaways from an unusual joint hearing among three different subcommittees was the importance of giving developing companies more support in the form of money, education and infrastructre so they do not turn to authoritarian regimes like Russia and China for help.
The hearing was hosted by the Energy & Commerce Communications Subcommittee, but was a joint production with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
It featured remote testimony from Dr. Bitange Ndemo, who led the Kenyan delegation to the Dubai conference, and stood with the U.S. in opposing Internet-related language that made it impossible for the U.S. delegation to sign on to the treaty. It was joined by 54 other countries.
Ndemo said many of the countries that did sign on had been coerced.
Legislator after legislator took to the microphone to praise the U.S. stand against the Internet language and ask what could be done to repel future attempts at government encroachment into 'net policy, which everyone agreed would continue.
Rep. Ed Royce (R- Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Dubai was only the first step in a series of attempts by authoritarian regimes to regulate the Internet. He said he expected those countries to push an even larger agenda in the future. "I think the struggle is giong to be permanent," he said. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Communications Subcommittee, agreed. "The Dubai conference made it clear we have a lot of work ahead of us."
Eshoo, along with Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden 9R-Ore.), gave FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell props for being early to warn of the attempted global Internet grab. "You rang the bell a long time ago," Eshoo said, "and we are grateful."
McDowell, who was a witness at the hearing, was still ringing that alarm bell. He said that the Internet was under assault, and warned of the next flash point--a world telecom conference in May--and an even bigger one in 2014, the plenipotentiary meeting of the ITU. He said three promises made by ITU officials before the conference--"No votes would be
taken at the WCIT; a new treaty would be adopted only through “unanimous consensus; and any new treaty would not touch the Internet"--had been "resoundingly broken."
And although 54 countries joined the U.S. in not signing the Dubai treaty, McDowell said that number was misleading since a number of those, including some otherwise clos European allies, were willing to support the inclusion of Internet language until Iran added an amendment.
"In short, the U.S. experienced a rude awakening regarding the stark reality of the situation," he said. "[W]hen push comes to shove, even countries that purport to cherish Internet freedom are willing to surrender. Our experience in Dubai is a chilling foreshadow of how international Internet regulatory policy could expand at an accelerating pace."
Ambassador David Gross, who along with McDowell was a member of the U.S. delegation to the WCIT conference, made a pitch for continued engagement with the ITU. While he was in total agreement that the language in the treaty made it unacceptable, he said remained extraordinarily important, both in terms of spectrum policy and as a way to do outreach to the developing world.
That outreach was a continuing theme throughout the hearing.
Congress' bipartisanship on the issue of global Internet regulation was evident early on. Both the House and Senate passed resolutions championing the multistakeholder model. Asked at the hearing whether that helped buttress the U.S. position in Dubai, the witnesses, all of whom had been members of the delegation, said yes.
Both Gross and McDowell said that other countries had taken note of the unusual agreement from an oft divided Congress. MCDowell said it was really quite extroadinary to those folks abroad. It was domestically, too, Walden quipped. Gross said he thought it had had a "substantial" impact. "When Congress speaks, the world listens," he said.
The takeaway from the hearing was that there were continued threats that required constant vigilance, and that one way to win hearts and minds would be to help the developing world. That would include not only infrastructure, said Sally Shipman Wentworth of The Internet Society, but also education, so that home grown engineers would understand the stakes for their countries.
There were also some suggestions that governments and private industry might help pay the way to conferences for countries that could not afford the price of admission to a 'net dialog that it was important for them to be a part of. Not doing so, they suggested, could send them to authoritarian regimes for help.