The Future of Broadband

Republicans Fear Net Neutrality Plan Could Lead to UN Internet Powers

An Obama administration official dismisses any link between the FCC’s rules and international authority over the Internet.

 Ethernet cables lead to a server at the Rittal stand at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair the day before the fair opens to visitors on March 4, 2013 in Hanover, Germany.
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 25, 2015, 8:37 a.m.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment’s plan to en­act strong net neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions could em­bolden au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes like China and Rus­sia to seize more power over the In­ter­net through the United Na­tions, a key Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an warned Wed­nes­day.

Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Thune of South Dakota ar­gued that by claim­ing more au­thor­ity over In­ter­net ac­cess for net neut­ral­ity, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion will un­der­mine the abil­ity of the U.S. to push back against in­ter­na­tion­al plots to con­trol the In­ter­net and cen­sor con­tent.

Coun­tries like Rus­sia already have made it clear that they want the In­ter­na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Uni­on or an­oth­er United Na­tions body to have more power over the In­ter­net, Thune said.

“It seems like re­clas­si­fy­ing broad­band, as the ad­min­is­tra­tion is do­ing, is los­ing a valu­able ar­gu­ment,” Thune said at his pan­el’s hear­ing on In­ter­net gov­ernance. “How do you pre­vent ITU in­volve­ment when you’re push­ing to re­clas­si­fy the In­ter­net un­der Title II of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act, and is every­one aware of that in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tion?”

On Thursday, the FCC is set to vote on net neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions that would de­clare In­ter­net ac­cess a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” un­der Title II. Ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama, ar­gue that the move is the only way the FCC can en­act rules that will hold up to leg­al chal­lenges in court. The rules aim to pre­vent In­ter­net pro­viders from act­ing as “gate­keep­ers” and con­trolling what con­tent users can ac­cess on­line.

Dav­id Gross, a part­ner at the law firm Wiley Rein who ad­vises tech and tele­com com­pan­ies, agreed with Thune’s warn­ing.

The U.S. has con­sist­ently ar­gued that the In­ter­net is not a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tion ser­vice” and there­fore out­side of the au­thor­ity of the In­ter­na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Uni­on, he ex­plained. “If they were to find that In­ter­net ser­vice is a tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice, that would un­doubtedly make the job of my suc­cessors much more com­plic­ated,” Gross, a former am­bas­sad­or to the ITU dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said.

A top Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial dis­missed the com­par­is­on between net neut­ral­ity and UN con­trol of the In­ter­net.

“I don’t think it’s quite as stark as your de­scrip­tion sug­gests, sen­at­or,” Larry Strick­ling, the Com­merce De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for com­mu­nic­a­tions and in­form­a­tion, replied to Thune.

He ac­know­ledged that coun­tries like China and Rus­sia are act­ively look­ing for ways to claim more power over the In­ter­net through the UN. But there’s noth­ing in­con­sist­ent about the U.S. op­pos­ing those ef­forts and sup­port­ing tough net neut­ral­ity rules, he ar­gued.

Europe and Canada already con­sider the In­ter­net a tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice and have joined the U.S. in op­pos­ing pushes for more UN in­flu­ence, Strick­ling said. No one has claimed that their po­s­i­tion is hy­po­crit­ic­al, he said.

“I fun­da­ment­ally don’t think this will change mat­ters go­ing for­ward,” Stick­ling said. “The United States is op­posed to in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al res­ol­u­tion to these In­ter­net is­sues. We will re­main op­posed to that.”

Later in the hear­ing, Sen. Maria Can­t­well, a Wash­ing­ton Demo­crat and net neut­ral­ity sup­port­er, ar­gued that the FCC’s rules will strengthen the abil­ity of the U.S. to push for a free and open In­ter­net on the in­ter­na­tion­al stage.

“I hope that our strong net neut­ral­ity rules can be the basis for an open In­ter­net,” Can­t­well said.

This art­icle was cor­rec­ted to in­clude the cor­rect name of the law firm Wiley Rein.

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