Internet Governance Bill Draws Fire from Dems

Cite Unintended Consequences of Enshrining Language about Freedom from Government Control

The House Communications Subcommittee began its two-day markup of a bill that would make U.S. support of a multistakeholder model of Internet governance the law of the land, rather than just the sense of the Congress, but lacking the unanimous support that was given last session's bipartisan resolution.

The Republican chair of the subcommittee has no problem with turning resolution language into law, while the ranking Democrats on the full committee and subcommittee say there would be unintended consequences to the language which she they hope to fix with amendments to the bill.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who said he could not support the bill, said that he was concerned that the bill was a back-door attempt to undermine the FCC's network neutrality rules and ability to manage the IP transition. He also said bill proponents refused to include a "savings" clause in the bill that would make clear the FCC's authority was preserved.

The resolution, which does not have the force of law, passed in both House and Senate in the run-up to the WCIT telecom treaty conference in Dubai, which the U.S. ultimately declined to sign after language was inserted relating to the Internet that the U.S. saw as opening the door to possible top-down internet governance pushed by countries including China, Russia and some Arab states.

Opening statements on the bill were delivered on Wednesday, with the actual mark-up (amendments and, if all goes well, a vote) of the bill, a draft of which was released by Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

The bill's language mirrors the resolution, holding 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."

Some Democrats are concerned about the "government control" language set in legislative stone, and what they say could be the unintended consequences.

In her opening statement, ranking subcommittee member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that she could not support the bill as currently drafted for that reason.

"[I]t is with deep disappointment that I have to express my opposition to the legislation being considered before the Subcommittee today," Eshoo said. She did not suggest the bill could not be fixed, and in fact will propose specific amendments to tweak it in the hopes that it, too, could be bipartisan. But she has several problems with the "government control" language.

"Last Congress, our bipartisan work together resulted in the unanimous passage of a Sense of Congress aimed prospectively at the WCIT conference in Dubai," she said. That resolution, she added, "demonstrated our unwavering support for the Internet's multi-stakeholder model and avoided any complications that could develop as a result of placing a formal Policy Statement in statute."

She says a number of agencies -- the FCC, State Department, NTIA and the Department of Justice -- have expressed concern that a policy statement turned into statute "could unintentionally impact ongoing or future agency litigation, or undermine Administration flexibility in conducting foreign policy.

"Furthermore, the expert agencies have expressed concern with the term 'government control.' One diplomat suggested that the use of this term might actually undermine existing Internet governance institutions such as ICANN because of its close relationship with the U.S. government. Foreign countries frequently cite the close coordination between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce as an example of U.S. 'control' over the Internet.

Walden took to a local paper, the Bend Bulletin, to make a case for his bill Wednesday. Walden saw no downside in converting the resolution into law.

"By strengthening last year's legislation, Congress will demonstrate its commitment to Internet freedom and push back on those nations that might subvert the Internet for their own purposes," he wrote. "Last year, Congress 'talked the talk' and passed a resolution defending a global Internet free from government control. This year, Congress must 'walk the walk' and make it official U.S. policy."