US lawmakers on Thursday said they are united when it comes to keeping the Internet free from centralized control and preventing the UN from gaining power over Web content and infrastructure.
The US government wants to bring as much ammunition as possible to a December meeting in Dubai where delegations from 193 countries will discuss whether to hand governance of the Internet over to the UN.
The US fears December’s treaty-writing conference could turn the Internet into a political bargaining chip and could empower efforts by countries like China, Russia and Iran to erode Internet freedoms and isolate their populations.
“We may have our differences on domestic telecommunications policy, but having those policies decided at the international level would be the worst thing that could happen,” US Representative Marsha Blackburn said at a hearing before a US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Blackburn commended US President Barack Obama administration’s efforts to thwart giving an international governing body power over the Internet.
Vinton Cerf, regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet and now vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc, cautioned that a move toward top-down control dictated by governments could hinder innovation and growth.
That path, he said, “promotes exclusion, hidden deals, potential for indiscriminate surveillance and tight centralized management.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a resolution to reject the proposed international takeover of the Internet and preserve the “multi-stakeholder” model of governance.
“In many ways, this is a referendum on the future of the Internet,” US Representative Mary Bono Mack said at Thursday’s hearing.
“If this power grab is successful, I’m concerned that the next Arab Spring will instead become a ‘Russia Winter’ where free speech is chilled, not encouraged, and the Internet becomes a wasteland of unfilled hopes, dreams and opportunities,” said Bono Mack, a sponsor of the resolution.
Social media sites Twitter, Facebook and YouTube played a big role in last year’s Arab Spring revolution.
The Internet is currently policed loosely, with technical bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers and the World Wide Web Consortium largely dictating its infrastructure and management. The US holds significant sway with those bodies.
When the delegations gather in Dubai, they will renegotiate a UN treaty last revisited in 1988 and debate proposals that would consolidate control over the Internet with the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
“During the treaty negotiations, the most lethal threat to Internet freedom may not come from a full-frontal assault, but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of intergovernmental powers,” US Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell said.
Proposals out of the Middle East, McDowell said, would change the definition of telecommunications in a way that arguably would include the Internet and would suddenly sweep an entire industry into the rubric of ITU rules.
The US lawmakers fear that countries like China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others could politick smaller nations who have little interest in the issue to back them in giving them greater ability to isolate their populations and silence political dissidents.