Walking the walk on Internet regulation

Why increased government oversight imperils the Internet
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Bruce Mehlman

Mehlman

Even though games like Angry Birds and Words with Friends might swallow more hours in a week than some would like to admit, investment in broadband technology has hugely improved Americans' productivity and quality of life. The Internet is one of the most remarkable American innovations of the 20th century--but recent international efforts to expand governmental regulation over the Internet put future investment, innovation and societal progress at risk.

The Obama Administration and especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have consistently acknowledged this growing threat, and we'll need them to remain focused and forceful. Their efforts do more than support America's Internet users; by maintaining a vibrant global Internet, they are supporting economic growth at America's high-tech and telecommunications companies that employ our citizens.

Jobs: that's just one reason why there should be pressure on state and federal officials to not undercut these efforts by pushing for new Net regulations here at home. Congress and the FCC should be especially cognizant of this and ensure that Internet policies at home match our international stance. We cannot expect to persuade others that top-down regulation of the Internet is a bad idea if we enact those policies at home. 

Proposals to expand Internet regulation domestically undermine our policy of having the Internet accessible to all citizens around the globe. To appreciate the risk of global regulation and the need for forbearance at home, it's important to understand how the Internet works. The Internet operates in an essentially decentralized way. It's based on a "multi-stakeholder model," in which independent groups and nonprofits, rather than governments, take the lead on Internet governance. 

Importantly, this has been the case for decades. Even though the Internet started as a federal research effort, the Clinton Administration decided to oppose government control in favor of private oversight. This lets scientists and engineers work together to improve web operations. (For more on this, check out the history of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.) Yes, consensus based decision-making is slower than government fiat. But it has spurred the Internet's unprecedented growth, providing businesses and consumers with today's buffet of information and services.  

But this private sector governance is under threat from certain foreign governments that object to fundamental principles of openness and freedom. For example, Russia and China support intrusive new regulations and expanded governmental oversight. 

Egypt and Iran have also sought to limit what their citizens can access on the Internet. Now these and other countries seek global regulation of the Internet through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations. If successful, the UN would be able to exert greater control not only over technical matters – Internet domain names and protocol standards, for example – but such issues as data privacy and online security.  

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell reports that some foreign governments have even suggested adopting regulations to govern compensation arrangements between entities who exchange Internet traffic. These nations are proposing not just regulation of Internet access, but regulation of the Internet itself. 

They seek to use the Internet and American companies as potential revenue sources for their own purposes. This is why Vint Cerf, the computer scientist known as the "father of the Internet," recently testified to Congress that "[t]he open Internet has never been at a higher risk than it is now." It has never been more important for the U.S. to lead by example. 

Just as President Clinton recognized that the Internet could only reach its highest potential in a private sector, multi-stakeholder regime, so, too, must the current Administration. The ITU does not need expanded authority over the Internet. The private sector model of Internet governance has worked well and we should foster its continued success.  

America gave the Internet to the world and open access to it has resulted in more than just enjoyable games. Private investment has brought innovative communication tools that have aided social movements and connected families across continents and oceans. Keeping that open access and innovation means limiting regulation of the Internet, both globally and right here at home. 

Bruce Mehlman is founding co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a regular FierceTelecom columnist chronicling broadband regulations.