The House Energy and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly backed a seemingly unremarkable bill Wednesday designed to prevent foreign governments from taking greater control of the Internet. But it’s what isn’t included in the legislation that is the most revealing.
Over the past year, Internet “freedom” has become an area of rare consensus in Congress. Members of both parties praised the spirit of cooperation at the markup, which came after changes to the bill designed to address Democratic concerns.
On its surface, the measure would do little to change domestic policy. It affirms the importance of an Internet free from censorship and government control and codifies the existing management structure of the Internet. In doing so, it relies heavily on a resolution Congress passed unanimously last year before the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where U.S. negotiators tried to fend off a treaty they feared would allow repressive foreign regimes greater ability to censor Web traffic.
“It is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet,” states the key clause of the bill cleared Wednesday by the committee on a voice vote.
Notably, however, lawmakers dropped from the legislation the phrase “free from government control,” which had threatened to derail the April 11 markup by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. How various policymakers and stakeholders define government control has become a crucial window into their views on Internet policy and it demonstrates how even seemingly innocuous technology legislation can have unintended and far-reaching consequences.
Since taking the gavel of the telecom subpanel, Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., has consistently criticized the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules and any other Obama administration policies perceived as regulating the Internet. His stance reflects a broader, anti-regulatory, hands-off-the-Internet agenda that many Republicans have increasingly embraced in legislative battles over cybersecurity and online privacy protections, for instance.
Soon after the Dubai conference, House Republicans began using the rhetoric of Internet freedom to frame some of these domestic issues, and it was in that context that Walden held his April 11 markup. The original draft of his bill included the phrase “promote a global Internet free from government control” in the final clause, similar to last year’s resolution.
Democrats immediately objected to the phrase “free from government control,” arguing it could undermine the U.S. government’s ability to enforce existing — or future — laws online. Subcommittee ranking member Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., said four federal agencies expressed concern that the legislation could affect federal litigation and undermine flexibility in foreign policy.