Why US net neutrality debate matters globally

At the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in Istanbul next week, a multi-stakeholder group of representatives from around the world will gather to discuss the most pressing Internet policy issues of the day. Net neutrality will be high on the agenda, with one of the plenary sessions devoted to developing a common understanding of the issue. From a continent away, the conversation will invariably turn to what's happening here in the U.S. at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and how it impacts the global policy conversation.

It's been a busy year for net neutrality around the world. This spring, the European Parliament passed rules that outlaw network discrimination and prevent anti-competitive commercial agreements. A few weeks later, the final version of Brazil's Marco Civil was codified with a section on network neutrality, despite a fierce campaign by telecom lobbyists to gut the provisions in the months prior to the bill's passage. In capitals all over the world, debates continue about the net neutrality implications of practices like zero-rating and finding the appropriate balance between competitive interests and consumer protections.

Against this backdrop, policymakers and advocates in the United States are currently embroiled in a heated battle over the future of the FCC's Open Internet rules. In January 2014, the District of Columbia Circuit Court vacated the no-blocking and nondiscrimination rules that the FCC had enacted in 2010. Now the commission is in the middle of a rulemaking proceeding to consider new net neutrality rules, pitting large broadband carriers and those who argue that new rules are unnecessary against major Internet companies and public interest advocates who have urged the FCC to put strong obligations in place. Over a million comments have already been filed in the net neutrality docket this year.

Meanwhile, several of the major U.S. Internet service providers have suggested that if the FCC chooses the "wrong" path on net neutrality, it could undermine American international policy objectives. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon all claim in their initial comments to the FCC that reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carriage regulations would encourage foreign governments to enact similarly "restrictive" regulations over the Internet. What's more, they argue, reclassification would undercut the Internet Freedom agenda, making it more difficult for the State Department to push back against Internet-censoring countries like China and Russia and preserve the current multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.

Verizon, for example, suggests that reclassification "would set a dangerous precedent at a time when the United States has needed to fight vigilantly against international bodies and even repressive regimes that seek greater control over the Internet." Comcast argues that the "United States' policy preference for competition over heavy-handed regulation has not been confined to domestic communications," adding that "imposing common-carrier regulation on broadband services could undermine the United States' resistance to greater oversight of the Internet by the UN's International Telecommunication Union." AT&T and Verizon made similar predictions during the first Open Internet proceeding in 2010.

The carriers are right that the path the FCC ultimately chooses matters beyond the domestic context — but for very different reasons. The global interest in the U.S. net neutrality debate is not borne out of fear that strong rules will enable a "U.N. takeover" of the Internet or bolster Chinese and Russian arguments for censorship and control. (They may try to use it in their rhetoric, but it won't convince anyone who does not already agree with them.) It's because the precedent we set here may influence whether and how governments in other countries choose to protect net neutrality on their own soil.

The issue at stake is whether the United States will continue to be a leader in protecting a fundamental piece of the open Internet: the right of users to freely access the content of their choosing online. Experts have argued before that Internet freedom begins at home, and that to maintain credibility in our foreign policy objectives, the United States needs to demonstrate that we hold ourselves to the similar standards here as well. In the case of net neutrality, that sentiment rings particularly true.

In fact, the rules that net neutrality advocates want the FCC to enact are not heavy-handed, nor do they demonstrate a "solution in search of a problem," as some have suggested. They are based on real threats to Internet openness, and outline a targeted response grounded in clear, bounded legal authority. Implying that bright-line rules that protect against blocking and discriminatory behavior would make it easier for foreign governments to justify censorship and greater control over the network simply does not compute.

The United States is in a much stronger position globally when we can demonstrate that our domestic policies reinforce the values that we're promoting abroad. As a result, the current net neutrality proceeding matters not only in the domestic context, but also if the U.S. hopes to continue to serve as a global model for protecting the open Internet. To demonstrate that leadership, we need strong, clear network neutrality rules based on sound legal authority.

Kehl is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.