The United States’ policy schizophrenia regarding the Internet was on full display last week in Washington. On one day, the Commerce Department explained to a Senate committee why it’s important for the U.S. government to take a hands-off approach to the Internet as a reason why it’s ending its ties to ICANN. And on the very next day, the Federal Communications Commission explained why it’s important to take a hands-on approach to the Internet by imposing net neutrality rules.
Meanwhile, other governments must be smirking at us.
Simply put, we can’t have it both ways and expect to have any credibility when we fend off the efforts of China, Brazil and other governments that want their governments to have much bigger say on how the Internet is run.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration head Larry Strickling is walking a tight rope in the post-Snowden era, trying to untether ICANN so the rest of the world can’t use the U.S. oversight of ICANN as an excuse to meddle themselves. And he’s not getting a lot of help from ICANN, which seems tone deaf when it comes to concerns about how the organization will manage itself once it’s truly independent.
But the fact that the very next day the FCC takes the historic step to regulate the pipes that make the Internet work sends a signal to the rest of the world that the United States isn’t really serious about taking a hands-off approach. And that signal won’t be lost on those who have their designs on regulating the Internet on a global scale.
A decade ago, the International Telecommunications Union rumbled about the need for the Internet to be under its control rather than oversight from ICANN. This would help keep the role in the evolving networks relevant to the old guard ITU Member State participants run by the United Nations. That foray was blunted only when the U.S. State Department said a very public and emphatic, “No.” But that was just the first time. As recently as 2012 the ITU sought to regulate the Internet by rewriting telecom regulations. Once again, the United States, and the United Kingdom, shot that down.
But does the United States have the same credibility now to blunt those efforts after the FCC imposed Title II regulation on Internet providers? Title II rules depend on the ad hoc decisions made by regulators. How are the decisions made by the FCC any more credible than those made by other countries the U.S. so easily faults unless we employ the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ principle? This is but one danger of Title II which will undoubtedly be thrown in the face of U.S. policy officials and civil society participants the next time they object to the ITUs efforts to regulate the Internet on a global basis.
The Internet Society weighed in with a similar belief, stating that, “the FCC's decision today applies only to the United States, but…other nations may look to the FCC's ruling as a model for their own regulations.”
As the world’s leader on technology, the United States has to set an example of what an Internet that works for everyone looks like. That means ensuring that ICANN is on solid ground – accountable, transparent and backed-up legally – before it is truly self-governing. And that means having a coherent net neutrality policy that ensures a free and open Internet free of discrimination – no fast lanes and no slow lanes.
The United States didn’t get that with the FCC vote – all Americans will get is a few more years of uncertainty and litigation that will distract U.S. policymakers and potentially leave an opening for repressive governments to impose greater global restrictions on the Internet.
That is why we need Congress to build a 21st Century technology policy that sends a clear signal that the Internet must be free and open, it must be free from discrimination, but it also must not be regulated like regulated the telephone system a century ago.
Only then will the United States be able to deliver a coherent message to the rest of the world.
Montgomery is executive director of Calinnovates.