In a rare and resounding show of bipartisanship, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Thursday roundly condemned a United Nations proposal to establish a new international governance framework to oversee the Internet.
At the same time, while members of Congress and the Obama administration have blasted the notion of centralizing international regulatory oversight, a top State Department official told a House subcommittee that even if the U.N. adopts such a proposal in a treaty to be considered at a meeting later this year, the practical effects on the operations of the Internet domestically would be limited.
"[T]here's no enforcement mechanism associated with this. These are precatory, as many, many other aspects of international law are," Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, told members of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
"This conference and all of these activities are extraordinarily important in terms of establishing norms, in terms of establishing expectations, in terms of trying to help with respect to both the commercial activities and the free flow of information, but they're very, very different from a law that the Congress for example might adopt that would be subject to all the juridical enforcement mechanisms that are available," Verveer said.
At issue is a 1988 treaty known as the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), which established a set of global protocols largely concerning issues surrounding cross-border phone service such as the settlement rates telephone providers pay one another for routing calls.
That treaty, administered by the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), has served the international community fairly well, lawmakers and witnesses at Thursday's hearing generally agreed. But expanding the ITU's authority to set Internet governance policies, as some U.N. member states have advocated, threatens the historically decentralized and multi-stakeholder approach that has seen the technology flourish and could pave the way for greater government censorship of content that authoritarian regimes deem a threat, Verveer and Robert McDowell, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, testified.
When delegations from the 193 U.N. member nations meet this December in Dubai to consider the future of the ITU, the negotiators from United States and like-minded nations in Europe, the Americas and the Asian-Pacific region will attempt to beat back proposals that would significantly empower the organization with Internet oversight authority.
"In those three regions you have a largely consistent set of views," Verveer said.
But as a starting point to the negotiations, Verveer said that the United States and similar-minded countries had won an important victory in effectively defeating a proposal backed by Russia to abandon the model of the 1988 ITRs altogether and remake the ITU's authorities from scratch, giving the organization stronger oversight authority that critics warn would be a short walk to internationally sanctioned censorship.
"That effort has been turned back I think successfully," Verveer said. "The existing ITRs have been accepted as a framework for negotiations. There are no pending proposals to vest the ITU with direct Internet governance authority. Instead, thus far, traditional telecom issues such as roaming and fraud prevention have taken center stage."
But in addition to Russia, China, Iran and several other nations have signaled their interest in expanding centralized oversight of the Internet.
As the effects of the Arab Spring -- a wide-ranging, decentralized wave of protests in which the Internet played a formative role -- continue to play out, McDowell warned against efforts by authoritarian regimes to use the ITU negotiations as a vehicle to turn the Internet into a "tyrannical walled garden" that can be used to "snuff out political dissent."
McDowell also expressed concern about another proposal that has been floated to expand the ITU's authority beyond its established purview over cross-border telephone issues to oversee IP addresses. He explained that backers of that idea have suggested IP addresses, through the conversion process of VoIP technology, could be a remedy to problems arising from a global shortfall of telephone numbers.
"What is left unsaid, however, is that potential ITU jurisdiction over IP addresses would enable it to regulate Internet services and devices with abandon," McDowell said. "IP addresses are a fundamental and essential component to the inner-workings of the Net. Taking their administration away from the bottom-up, non-governmental, multi-stakeholder model and placing it into the hands of international bureaucrats would be a grave mistake."
Other issues up for debate at the meeting in Dubai include proposals to implement some revenue-raising system to promote broadband expansion in developing nations. One idea that has been suggested -- and staunchly opposed by the United States -- would levy a per-click charge on some of the most popular destinations on the Web to subsidize broadband service in other nations, with Google, Facebook, iTunes and Netflix among the most popular targets.
Such proposals have given rise to what Verveer called a "unanimity of purpose" in opposing new ITU authorities among U.S. businesses that often find themselves at odds on matters of public policy, as well as lawmakers and other government officials, irrespective of party lines.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and the bipartisan leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its technology subcommittee introduced a resolution (available in PDF format here) expressing opposition to the establishment of any form of international Internet regulation. Backers of the measure said they hope to bring it to the House floor shortly.
Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the full committee, which has been marked by fierce partisanship in recent years, said that there is "no daylight between House Republicans and House Democrats on this issue."
As a matter of process, the December meeting in Dubai likely will not put the ITU treaty to a formal vote, according to Verveer. Rather, any treaty that results will probably be the product of a general consensus achieved through quiet negotiations among stakeholders.
But just as he noted that U.N. enforcement of the treaty will be scant, Verveer said that most signatories will leave themselves considerable flexibility to implement the provisions of the document in accordance with their respective laws and customs.
"We assuredly will take a very broad reservation to whatever is agreed at the conference, and virtually every other country will do the same thing," he said. "So you will have countries agreeing that they will abide by the provisions of the treaty unless for some reason they won't, and as I say, typically the reasons will be extraordinarily broad."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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