WASHINGTON D.C. - Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today penned a joint op-ed for Re/code on protecting the Internet from government control with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Chairman Fred Upton and Ranking Member Henry Waxman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Protecting the Internet From Government Control

December 18, 2014

By Fred Upton, Henry A. Waxman, Ed Royce and Eliot Engel

Internet governance is at an inflection point and debate about the fundamental structure of the Internet is ramping up. This debate, now being had in the United Nations, Internet Governance Forum, ICANN and other organizations, will affect global business models relying on networked technologies and freedom of expression and privacy. The multi-stakeholder systems of Internet governance — which includes the private sector, civil society, governments, research institutions and non-government organizations in decision making — has made the Internet a transformative technology.

The United States’ position has been clear on this question: The multi-stakeholder system must continue.

But not every country shares our nation’s passion for free expression. Around the world, oppressive governments have restricted access to Facebook, Google, YouTube, as well as other sites, in an effort to control the free flow of opinions and information. During a late-September U.N. General Assembly gathering, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo asked the Iranian president, via Twitter, “Mr. President, enjoying your Tweets from the UN. We would love the Iranian people to enjoy them as well. When will that be?”

Unfortunately, Iran is not the only government that has sought to thwart its citizens’ access to the Internet. China is blocking websites and filtering its citizen’s searches, Cuba only allows pro-government users to upload content, Saudi Arabia has blocked more than 40,000 sites that it deems unacceptable with the government, and Turkey is taking steps to make it easier to block sites without a court order. The list goes on.

During the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) in Dubai in 2012, countries including Russia, Iran and China sought to legitimize these practices by placing aspects of Internet governance under the UN’s International Telecommunication Regulations administered by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The ITU dates back to 1865, when it was established as the International Telegraph Union to coordinate the delivery of telegraphs among nations. Governments are the only voting members. Whether “telegraph” or “telecommunications,” ITU’s mandate was never to cover the Internet, and installing the ITU or any similar body as the gatekeeper of Internet resources, policy and standards is the wrong approach to Internet governance. That is why, when there was an effort in 2012 in Dubai to bring the Internet under ITU control, the U.S. and 53 other nations, many in the European Union, stood together in the name of Internet freedom and refused to sign.

Over the past few weeks, American diplomats and a large delegation of businesses and civil society members joined others from around the world in Busan, South Korea, for the ITU’s plenipotentiary conference, which is held every four years. The U.S. delegation worked to persuade other countries to ally themselves with a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance that embraces individual users, academia, technologists, civil society, commercial interests, and governments, and in large part, achieved their goals.

Many countries joined the U.S. in recognizing that multi-stakeholder governance will ensure the resilience of the Internet, and enable commerce and economic development. They are increasingly seeing the self-interest and incentives of resisting an ITU-centric model, because it could empower countries to censor the free flow of information and suppress dissent, as well as stifle broadband investment in both e-commerce and network infrastructure.

Our U.S. delegation made some important progress. Despite a push by a number of countries, the ITU remains peripheral to Internet governance. However, this issue was by no means defeated. The participants to the conference agreed that the ITU could act as a forum for the discussion, but not regulation, of Internet matters. While this is a seemingly small concession, it strongly indicates that the effort to expand ITU jurisdiction into Internet governance will only continue.

Countries that don’t share our commitment to an open Internet will continue to press for a greater role for governments and intergovernmental organizations like the ITU. We must remain vigilant in our convictions. It is critical that, on issues of Internet governance, the ITU-member states refrain from changing the current, well-functioning system. For continued advancement of the Internet, the world must maintain multi-stakeholder governance and reject efforts to recast the ITU or any other similar intergovernmental entity as an international Internet regulator.

Handing over the reins of Internet governance to a body like the ITU would imperil the Internet at a time when its dynamism and innovation are benefitting more people around the globe than ever before. With the future of the Internet on the line, the U.S. and the many countries around the world supporting the principles of freedom, openness and innovation must continue to stand firm. The U.S. Congress remains unified in support of the U.S. delegation’s efforts to keep Internet governance out of the ITU’s jurisdiction.

The multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance must prevail for more countries around the world to realize the transformative benefits of Internet connectivity.

This essay was written for Re/code by the bipartisan leaders of the House Energy & Commerce and Foreign Affairs Committees: Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY).

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Read the op-ed on Re/code here