At issue is a proposal that would vest the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which already oversees cross-border issues relating to telephone service, with new authorities over the Internet.
Avoiding Internet Censorship
That issue, which is expected to come up for debate at a meeting of U.N. member nations later this year in Dubai, raises the specter of eroding the decentralized, multi-stakeholder model that has historically characterized Internet governance. Critics have also suggested that nations that have used the Web as a tool for surveillance and repression might leverage the agreement to legitimize their censorship programs and snuff out political dissent.
The concurrent resolution that the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved this morning calls on the Obama administration to reject any proposal that would undermine the multi-stakeholder governance framework and extend the authorities of the ITU.
"As the United States prepares to take part in the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, we need to provide our delegation with a clear and unmistakable mandate: Keep the Internet free of any government control," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), the chair of a commerce and trade subcommittee and the author or the resolution, said in response to the measure's passage. "Most worrisome to me are efforts by some countries to provide the United Nations with unprecedented new authority over the management of the Internet."
"Despite denials, the Russians and Chinese are working quietly behind the scenes -- and have been for years -- to exert control over Web content and infrastructure," Bono Mack added. "This could lead to human rights abuses in the future and effectively put a spigot on the free flow of information. We can't let that happen."
Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which in the past have sparred over network neutrality and other Internet governance issues that cut along partisan lines, are unified in their opposition to expanding U.N. control of the Internet. Forty-six members of the committee have added their names to co-sponsor Bono Mack's resolution, which passed by voice vote without dissent.
At a subcommittee hearing earlier this year, a senior State Department official sought to quell concerns about the practical impact of the Internet governance proposal, even if the measure is adopted. Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, assured lawmakers that the U.S. delegation to the Dubai meeting would oppose new Internet regulations, but such measures, if implemented, would be essentially unenforceable, with minimal impact on the nation's Internet firms.
Moreover, Verveer said that there is strong international opposition to empowering the ITU with new Internet authorities among nations in Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific region. He also indicated that a proposal advanced by Russia to scrap the 1988 International Telecommunications Regulations treaty with its limited focus on telephone service and rewrite it from scratch had been abandoned as a starting point for the Dubai negotiations.
Business Groups United Against U.N. Oversight
Nevertheless, business groups representing members of the technology sector have spoken out in growing alarm about the prospect of even a nominal expansion of U.N. oversight. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) have lined up in support of Bono Mack's resolution.
In a statement, SIIA President Ken Wasch praised the committee's action this morning "for defending the Web from control by international bodies that could threaten today's reality of Internet freedom."
"While many government agencies, especially law enforcement and national security departments, would agree that their jurisdiction extends to actions on the Internet, the real worry is how governments and international agencies that are hostile to Internet freedom could interpret and apply these broad principles," Wasch added. "The proposed code of conduct could be used to limit the ability of individuals and firms to exchange legitimate Internet traffic across borders and create significant digital trade barriers."
Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, the principal trade group representing the wireless industry, echoed that sentiment, commending the lawmakers for their "strong statement in favor of a free, unfettered Internet."
"We hope that policymakers here and abroad rally to the notion that the way to advance broadband access and deployment, and the political and economic freedoms broadband can support and advance, is by keeping the heavy hand of government off of the Internet," Largent said.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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