WASHINGTON, February 6, 2013 – Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee collectively patted themselves, and their nation, on the back at a hearing on Tuesday entitled, “Fighting for Freedom: Dubai and Beyond.”
Our notions are grounded in freedom, said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. Indeed, said Rep. Poe, “freedom is what we do in this country.” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., also echoed the flag-waving spirit in saying that a universal commitment to upholding free speech was “one of many things that unite Democrats and Republicans.”
The hearing focused on the United States’ choice to align with 53 other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and India, against other country’s proposals put forward at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in the United Arab Emirates in mid-December 2012. The event was the subject of the November 2012 Broadband Breakfast Club.
The WCIT conference had been held to examine proposed changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations first adopted in 1988. The 1988 regulations were initially implemented by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Telecommunications Union to address to the changing world of international communications, namely, telephone systems.
According to a memorandum distributed for the hearing, the 1988 regulations were “conceived in an era when most countries still had monopoly, government owned telephone providers.” These regulations did not relate to any projected internet usage, an option that was not yet on the global horizon.
Founded in 1865 to deal with the birth of the telegraph in global context, the ITU is now part of the United Nations.
Sally Shipman Wentworth, senior manager for public policy at the Internet Society, hoped that the ITU would “become more transparent” and that the “processes need to be more open, more inclusive of civil society, more reflective of a broader community and not a closed door intergovernmental place...which promotes this feeling that it is a secret plan.”
During the WCIT Conference, the U.S. and the 54 other nations united against proposals by Russia, China and Iran to incorporate that might allow government control over its citizens’ access to international telecommunications services, thus allowing countries the ability to censor their citizens’ internet-based speech. Additional proposed rules allowed for international tariffs that might restrict market-based exchanges of information.
Opposing the 55 countries that included the United States were 89 nations “ led by Putin's Russia and our good buddies the Chinese...[who] want the internet as a weapon against democratic opposition,” said Rep. Poe. He wondered whether aid given by the U.S. to countries that supported the resolution might need to be re-examined.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., warned that the regulations “could be used by oppressive governments to censor and surveil.”
The divided outcome of the WCIT convention has led to some uncertainty as to what will happen next.
In a rare unanimous vote, Congress preemptively voted 397-0 in opposition to United Nations governance over the internet -- even prior to the divided outcome in Dubai.
Panelists speaking before a joint hearing of several committees led by the Energy and Commerce Committee warned of the issues that would arise if Congress does not engage with its critics.
Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell urged Congress to act swiftly against the effort. “Let us not look back at this moment and lament that we did not do enough, we have but one chance, let us tell the world now that we will be resolute,” he said.
“The internet is under assault,” he said. “These wonders of the 21st century are inches away from being smothered by innovation-crushing rules designed for a different time.”
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., agreed with him. She said he hoped that the internet would remains “a success story for generations to come, not only for Americans, but for people around the world.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said that the U.S. can continue to strengthen the relationships between “coalitions of countries that stood together in Dubai.”
Also present at the hearing was Bitange Ndemo, secretary for the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications. Speaking via internet connection from a location in Nairobi, Kenya, Ndemo spoke of the internet’s ability to give people hope and its ability to empower a nation’s people to see their government is more responsive. He referred to the internet as the “lifeblood for innovations we have made in Kenya.”
Former U.S. Ambassador David Gross praised Ndemo's desire to “defend that which he believes to be correct.” Gross also spoke of how in recent years, internet connectivity has risen, and that broadband latency has greatly decreased in Kenya.
These kids of technical improvements have enabled the internet to provide a voice – literally as well as figuratively – for Ndemo speaking via an internet connection.
Harold Feld of the non-profit advocacy group Public Knowledge said that the unity between the United States and many nations of the rest of the world gave an “advantage ultimately in the political sphere, by making clear to many in global society what the stakes are here.”
Congress must continue their support “of the multi-stakeholder model of internet policy...both at home and abroad,” Wentworth said in her closing statements. “We can work together to ensure the internet continues to transcend political divides, and serves as an engine for human empowerment throughout the world.”