House Takes First Steps to Block U.N. Regulation of Internet

Proposals by China, Russia raise fears of censorship, taxation

Forget the Federal Communications Commission; lawmakers now are concerned that the United Nations might make a grab for some regulation over the internet.

House Republicans and Democrats alike on Thursday blasted several proposals circling around the U.N. that could dramatically change the regulatory approach to the internet, including net neutrality.

China and Russia and other countries have proposed that the U.N. mandate international norms governing information and cyberspace, and China also is seeking to register internet users by their IP numbers.

Also read: Barry Diller to Senate Group: Net Neutrality Crucial for Competition

Some internet-related proposals are expected to be addressed in December during the World Conference on International Telecommunications, a U.N.-affiliated conference, in Dubai in December. 

There is bipartisan concern any such regulations could result in both censorship and taxation of internet content and traffic.

A coalition of congressional leaders — including Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.; Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.; Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. — introduced a congressional resolution on Wednesday that urges the Obama administration to continue advocating internet governance “that clearly articulates the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.”

And on Thursday, the same subject was discussed at a hearing by the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, set up after both Democrats and Republicans said they were concerned about drumbeats that particularly the more authoritarian states want to work through the U.N. to regulate the web.

Russia President Vladimir Putin, for example, last June advocated for using the International Telecommunication Union to monitor the internet in a meeting with the U.N. Agency's Secretary General Hamadoun Touré.

“Does anyone here today believe that these countries’ proposals would encourage the continued proliferation of an open and freedom-enhancing internet?” FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell asked, specifically discussing the Chinese and Russian proposals.

“International regulatory intrusion into the internet would have disastrous results, not only for the U.S. but for folks around the world,” Upton said in his testimony to the subcommittee.

“We’re calling on the international community for hands-off — an international net neutrality, as it were, when it comes to the internet,” added Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

Also read: Congress' Takeover of Net Neutrality Is Dead 

“If all of us do not pay attention to what’s going on, users worldwide will be at risk of losing the open and free Internet that has brought so much to so many,” Google Vice President Vinton Cerf said during the hearing.

U.S. Ambassador Phil Verveer, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department, who will be active in the international negotiations said there are currently no pending proposals to give the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union “direct" internet governance authority.”

But he did add that some of the pending proposals, if adopted, “could limit the internet as an open and innovative platform by potentially allowing governments to monitor and restrict content or impose economic costs upon international data flows.”

He did not specify which specific proposals he was referring to.

Also read: Congress Approves $30 Million to Fight Piracy

As it stands, the internet is managed by non-governmental institutions. Those organizations, which include the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, oversee much of the web’s management and the creation of the system’s voluntary technical standards.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy made clear the Obama administration’s support for the existing approach to internet regulation in a May 2 blog entry. “Centralized control would threaten the ability of the world’s citizens to freely connect and express themselves by placing decision-making power in the hands of global leaders who have demonstrated a clear lack of respect for the right of free speech," the blog said.