International regulation menaces Internet freedom

Mike Montgomery

Silicon Valley is the king of Internet innovation. But that doesn’t mean the valley can ignore sovereign powers — particularly when their actions could threaten its lifeblood: global Internet freedom.

In December, the innocuous-sounding World Conference on International Telecommunications will be held in Dubai. Its stated purpose is to update the international telecom ground rules for things like global interoperability of networks and exchanges of telecom traffic between countries.

But concern is growing that a number of governments intend to exploit the Dubai meeting to change the rules governing the Internet. These changes would position the United Nations, via the International Telecommunication Union, as the global Internet regulator. They could also give individual governments much more power over the role of the Internet in their respective countries.

Already, proposals are floating back and forth among government officials around the world. The process has been criticized for its lack of transparency — so much so that at least one website has popped up, taking a page from the WikiLeaks playbook and publishing discussion drafts of confidential governmental proposals.

In the United States, recent congressional hearings were eye-opening. Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, testified that some governments want to use international mandates to charge certain Web destinations on a per-click basis, ostensibly to fund the build-out of broadband across the globe. “Google, iTunes, Facebook, and Netflix are mentioned most often as prime sources of funding,” McDowell added.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, noted that many countries “don’t share our view of the Internet and how it operates.” That’s putting it politely.

Vint Cerf is Google’s “Internet evangelist,” often referred to as the father of the Internet for helping create the TCP/IP protocol. He said the Dubai meeting could lead to “top-down control dictated by governments,” potentially affecting free expression and strengthening authoritarian regimes. “The open Internet has never been at a higher risk than it is now,” he said.

In this country, fortunately, the Obama administration, Congress, the business community and public interest groups appear to be united in opposition to significant changes to Internet governance. A resolution supporting existing policies, introduced by Rep. Mary Bono-Mack, a California Republican, passed unanimously earlier this month. A counterpart has been introduced in the Senate.

But that doesn’t mean the Internet and Silicon Valley are out of the woods. Although the United States appears to be of one mind, Cerf noted in the Congressional hearing that we can’t meet this challenge alone. We’re going to need the support of other countries. And we have to practice what we preach.

Abroad, we need to encourage like-minded governments, nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups to speak up. Silicon Valley can be a game-changer by talking about the benefits of a free and open Internet with foreign business partners, vendors, subsidiaries and affiliates, and encouraging their governments to resist proposals that could undermine a free and open Internet.

Whenever, wherever a free and open Internet is threatened, Silicon Valley’s prosperity is potential collateral damage. To resist these threats, Silicon Valley needs to stay informed and vigilant — and be ready to act.

*A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2012 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.