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An Internet (Almost) Free From Government Control

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Eshoo told CQ Roll Call she had a “sneaking suspicion” Republicans were using the Internet freedom legislation as a pretext to implement their anti-regulatory agenda.

Eshoo told CQ Roll Call she had a “sneaking suspicion” the Republicans were using the Internet freedom legislation as a pretext to implement their anti-regulatory agenda. Walden dismissed that suggestion at the April 11 markup and expressed a willingness to address the minority’s concerns.

“We know how to draft legislation requiring the FCC to strike the network neutrality regulations,” Walden said. “This legislation does not require the FCC to strike its network neutrality regulations.”

“We developed together and unanimously passed the language about ‘promoting a global Internet free from government control’” in last year’s resolution, Walden added. “If we meant what we said, I see no reason not to make that very language official U.S. policy” by codifying it in the pending legislation.

Ultimately, Walden chose to remove the language regarding government control shortly before Wednesday’s full committee markup, after promising to work with Eshoo and other Democrats in good faith to resolve their concerns. Eshoo emphasized the importance of unity between the two parties, arguing any division would signal weakness to foreign actors eager to promote censorship.

But removing the language about government control makes the whole exercise pointless, according to Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.

Mueller said the current governance structure of the Internet gives the United States subtle ways to exert control over the domain name system that aren’t available to other countries. He said the United States can use that authority to shut down foreign websites accused of piracy, police online gambling and deploy advanced cyber-weapons.

“If you really want to have a free and global Internet, you need to have these principles of freedom extended to the global level,” Mueller said.

Christopher Lewis, the vice president of government affairs for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said comparing the United States to foreign nations that censor Internet content is unfair.

“I think the resolution and the work of our diplomats has demonstrated that we remain committed to openness and certainly don’t see the same level of censorship and Internet control in our country that you see in other countries like China,” Lewis said.

Mueller said the legislation as it now stands merely affirms the importance of a multi-stakeholder process in governing the Internet, while preserving the unique influence the United States government enjoys over the Web. He said a refusal to allow other countries equal authority would eventually lead to a more fragmented DNS and more disputes at organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, that are tasked with managing the Web.

At the April 11 markup, Eshoo acknowledged that the language of the original bill — to “promote a global Internet free from government control” — would have complicated the unique relationship between the United States and those groups.

“One diplomat suggested that the use of this term might actually undermine existing Internet governance institutions such as ICANN because of its close relationship with our government,” Eshoo said. “Foreign countries frequently cite the close coordination between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce as an example of U.S. ‘control’ over the Internet.”

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