US Congress Backs State Department and UN on Preservation of “Multi-Stakeholder” Internet Model

Members of US House of Representatives are expected to vote today on a resolution that expresses support for a free and open internet.

The impetus for this vote are concerns that some countries may use the forthcoming 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications to push for new standards of internet governance contrary to the “multi-stakeholder model” that has proven to be so successful.

Some have called this a “UN takeover of the Internet,” but that is just a canard. To be sure, a few countries have signaled that they might support a more centralized Internet regulatory authority, potentially under UN auspices. But there is zero chance of that coming to fruition. The International Telecommunications Union doesn’t want it and neither do most countries in the world. Because this treaty will be decided upon by consensus, it means that these kinds of proposals simply will not fly.

This comment by Peter Yeo of the Better World Campaign* sums it up well.

“Leading into the December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, it is true that select nations have suggested restrictions to global internet usage. However, the ITU has made clear on numerous occasions that it does not seek authority over Internet governance, and from a practical standpoint, it does not even have the capacity to do so. Indeed, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the ITU’s Secretary-General, recently called suggestions to the contrary ‘simply ridiculous.’ What’s more, the December conference will almost certainly work by consensus, as all other ITU conferences have in the past, and because the U.S. has a voice at this important table, any proposals to fundamentally change the nature of Internet governance would likely be non-starters.”

Just in case there was any question of where the Obama administration stands, the State Department released a statement giving its full support for the “multi-stakeholder” model.

“We will not support any effort to broaden the scope of the ITRs to facilitate any censorship of content or blocking the free flow of information and ideas,” Ambassador Kramer said. “The United States also believes that the existing multi-stakeholder institutions, incorporating industry and civil society, have functioned effectively and will continue to ensure the health and growth of the Internet and all of its benefits.”

Finally, you have this action on Capitol Hill today, sponsored by the California Republican Mary Bono Mack.  The resolution concludes:

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, in consultation with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and United States Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy,should continue working to implement the position of the United States on Internet governance that clearly articulates the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today.

The Obama administration, Republicans in Congress and the UN itself don’t want the UN to control the Internet. It’s not going to happen.

Still, the real significance of this Congressional resolution is that it is a firm expression of support for American engagement at a United Nations forum. On occasion, there are moves by Congress to simply have the USA withdraw from various UN entities, as if US non-participation is a way to punish the UN and delegitimize the entity. By contrast, this resolution recognizes the value of the USA having a seat at the table to steer the negotiations toward an outcome that benefits the USA (and in the this case, the whole Internet-loving world.)

This resolution is a tacit recognition by Congress that a good way to advance American interests at the UN is through engaging productively in negotiations.