Keeping the Internet free from government control

Rep. Greg Walden /

The Internet is under attack by nations that want to plunder its riches and control the flow of information. No, I’m not referring to the latest state-sponsored cyber-attack. I’m talking about a concerted international effort — out of the view of most Americans — to drag the Internet within the purview of regulatory bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency.

Under the current “multi-stakeholder” governance model, non-regulatory institutions manage and operate the Internet by developing best practices with public and private sector input across the globe. The structure of the Internet and the content and applications it carries are organized from the ground up, not handed down by governments. This allows the Internet to evolve quickly, to meet the diverse needs of users around the world, and to keep governmental or non-governmental actors from controlling the design and operation of the network or the content it carries. Governments’ hands-off approach has enabled the Internet to grow at an astonishing pace and become perhaps the most powerful engine of social and economic freedom and job creation the world has ever known.

But in 2012, at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, a number of countries proposed subjecting the Internet to a 1980s-era treaty intended to govern phone calls that cross national borders. Some parties advocated regulation because they see a revenue opportunity through tariff-type rules to fund their own communications and non-communications objectives. Others advocated it because they want to be able to monitor content and users.

Although couched in terms of broadband deployment and cybersecurity, in reality such proposals could be used by countries as excuses to impose economic regulation on the Internet, and possibly even to censor speech their governments find threatening. How often have we read of oppressive regimes stifling political speech?

In the lead up to negotiations, the U.S. House and Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing such proposals and directing the U.S. delegation “to promote a global Internet free from government control.” That resolution is credited with emboldening more than 50 nations to join the United States in refusing to sign the treaty.

Unfortunately, international opponents of a global Internet free from government control are redoubling their efforts. We must, too. That is why I am introducing legislation elevating the language from a resolution opposing proposals in a particular treaty to a permanent statement of U.S. policy. The congressional subcommittee on communications and technology that I chair will consider it today.

By strengthening last year’s legislation, Congress will demonstrate its commitment to Internet freedom and push back on those nations that might subvert the Internet for their own purposes. Last year, Congress “talked the talk” and passed a resolution defending a global Internet free from government control. This year, Congress must “walk the walk” and make it official U.S. policy. Since this is a principle that we’ve already unanimously said we believe in, there is no downside to stating so plainly in U.S. law. I urge my colleagues to continue the bipartisan cooperation the House and Senate showed last year and affirm that the Internet is too important to the world to be overrun by governments.