Congress pushes for ‘Internet Freedom’ as U.N. showdown looms

The House is pushing forward in an effort to block a United Nations-related group from potentially allowing countries to censor the Internet, before an international showdown this fall.

Internet_Archive_mirror_serversThe House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a draft bill, with little fanfare last week, that repeated a claim that “it is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

Congress had passed a resolution to that effect last year, but now it’s seeking to get an official law on the books before a big international conference in October in South Korea.

Some contentious language was struck from the bill that might have affected the current policy of net neutrality, which allows the federal government to make sure Internet providers provide equal access to companies that want to stream video and other content.

But the basic gist of the bill was to make sure a message was sent to U.N.-sponsored International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Last December, the United States and its key allies didn’t sign a draft ITU treaty in Dubai that proposed that individual nations had the power to potentially censor the Internet.

The last-second addition of wording about the rights of all nations to have a role in controlling the Internet sparked outrage from Western nations.

This February, departing Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell warned the House committee that the ITU had plans that weren’t in the best interest of the United States.

“Last year’s bipartisan and unanimous congressional resolutions clearly opposing expansions of international powers over the Internet reverberated throughout the world and had a positive and constructive effect,” he said.

“The dramatic encroachments on Internet freedom secured in Dubai will serve as a stepping stone to more international regulation of the Internet in the very near future. The result will be devastating even if the United States does not ratify these toxic new treaties,” he added.

McDowell said the meeting this fall in South Korea will be “literally a constitutional convention” to “define the ITU’s mission for years to come. Its constitution will be rewritten and a new Secretary General will be elected. This scenario poses both a threat and an opportunity for Internet freedom. The outcome of this massive treaty negotiation is uncertain, but the momentum favors those pushing for more Internet regulation.”

The ITU is seeking to update a 1988 document called the International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty. It is considering controls over the Internet as an expansion of its current mandate over telephones, television, and radio networks.

A late nonbinding provision tacked on to the treaty last year stated: “The Internet is a central element of the infrastructure of the information economy, and recognizes that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, the security and stability of the Internet, and its future development.”

The addendum was sponsored by a bloc of African nations, and Iran led the effort to get it passed by a majority vote.

At the time, former U.S. ambassador Terry Kramer bluntly said his country had no interest in signing the treaty.

“The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without U.N. regulation,” Kramer said.

The event was serious enough that in a highly charged partisan environment of Washington, the Obama administration, top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and even top tax fighter Grover Norquist all agreed the Internet should be kept free when it comes to access and taxes.

In reality, some countries already block Web access, but an official mandate to let ITU members control how Internet access points are assigned and monitored would make the whole process much easier to manage—and censor.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages domains and controls the Internet’s backbone. ICANN operates as a nonprofit company at the direction of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Prior to 1998, the U.S. government managed Internet domain names directly.)

Some critics say the real issue is a power grab by the ITU (and the U.N.) to take ICANN away from any swaying influence exerted on it by the U.S. government.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.

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