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Fighting to Keep the Internet Open and Free
This piece, co-written with Mobile Future's Jonathan Spalter, originally appeared in the Hill on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014.
This week, as the world’s Internet diplomats descend on Busan, South Korea for the important global gathering of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), they would do well to do a quick status update on the health and well-being of the Internet and the future of global communications.
For the truth is that this remarkable thing we call the Internet may be much more fragile than it appears.
Cyber-criminals, rogue states and adversaries are making the Internet far less safe for consumers through the persistent and escalating theft of personal data.
Autocratic governments are making a major effort to bring the day-to-day governance of the Internet under their control.
Industrial espionage has dramatically escalated across the world, with some estimates now suggesting that global corporations are losing hundreds of billions of dollars in intellectual property every year.
Spectrum, the electromagnetic waves which form the invisible infrastructure for the mobile Internet, increasingly is in short global supply as demand continues to accelerate through the developed and developing world.
Meanwhile, protectionist trade policies are threatening to create not a single global Internet, but a series of regional intranets that replicate the kind of customs regimes we see on physical borders today.
To counter these threats to the Internet, it will be critical at this meeting for America’s delegation to be crystal clear about what concrete steps need to be taken to ensure that the Internet can remain resilient, accessible, free and secure, now and for future generations.
In that regard, we offer the following agenda for the U.S. government both in Busan and going forward:
Defend the current multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance – The American delegation should re-affirm our nation’s principled commitment to the current multi-stakeholder approach which limits the ability of authoritarian governments to exert undue influence. It also must reiterate that the proposed transition of certain Internet domain name functions, known as IANA, from the U.S. government to the global multistakeholder community through a process convened by ICANN (the organization responsible for technical coordination of the domain name system ) must satisfy all applicable conditions before it comes into effect, and be clearly understood to be undertaken as a means to reinforce the integrity and viability of the current system.
Finish the ambitious Pacific and Atlantic trade agreements – It is important for the Administration to complete the two current regional trade agreements which will begin to put a more solid global legal framework underneath the digital economy. Most of the current trade treaties were completed prior to the arrival of the Internet, and a whole new generation of trade agreements will need to be negotiated to extend the current liberal system to a new era of digital commerce. These binding treaties will be essential to stem the exploding level of industrial espionage and corporate cyber theft which itself has become one of the biggest threats to global commerce.
Maintain a “light touch” when it comes to regulation– For 20 years, the U.S. government has argued that the Internet must not be regulated at home or abroad as a public utility-style telecom service. This legal distinction has been essential to the Internet’s explosive growth, and the innovation we’ve seen. If the FCC were to declare, as some have requested, that wireline and wireless broadband and other services be reclassified as a Title II telecommunications service, it would create an opening for the Internet to become globally regulated by the ITU, a body that will likely be chaired by a Chinese government official in the coming years. It may also provide “cover” for certain authoritarian regimes to point to the more heavy-handed new Internet regulation in the United States as justification for their own greater control of the Internet in their societies.
Encourage governments to keep taxes on Internet devices and services low – In far too many countries, including here in the United States, mobile devices, mobile service, computers and other devices and services – which make up the Internet as we know it today – are taxed at levels which prevent widespread consumer access, and at rates which are far greater than other common goods and services. The U.S. government should continue to work with foreign governments to build internal regulatory and fiscal frameworks which encourage wide spread adoption and the democratization of information services. And we must lead by example by lowering mobile tax rates here at home.
Ramp-up White House policy leadership – Both Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry put Internet freedom high on the list of key American national security priorities. That was a wise first step. But now, given the enormous and increasing global economic, cultural, and security stakes involved in maintaining a flourishing and secure Internet, it is time for the White House itself to exert more hands-on leadership in, and coordination of, overall Internet policy management across government.
For Americans and many people around the world the Internet represents freedom, opportunity, and knowledge – a world of possibility and openness. But to many autocratic governments and rogue actors on the global stage, the very openness of the Internet is a threat to their far more oppressive understanding of what civil society means. In recent years, these and other forces are working to weaken the Internet, and challenge its primacy in the lives of billions of people around the world. To ensure that the Internet continues to evolve and strengthen, the United States government will need to become far more assertive on the international stage in shaping the global consensus for how we can ensure our grand kids won’t be talking about this thing called the Internet the way we talk about the League of Nations today. A strong and aggressive performance in South Korea over the next few weeks by the United States delegation will be an important first step in this vital effort.
Rosenberg is president of the think tank NDN. Spalter, chair of Mobile Future, was a senior national security official in the Clinton administration.
Other Pieces on the Need for Liberal Values to Prevail in a New Century:
The Liberal Order Needs An Upgrade, September 23rd, 2014, U.S. News. Like an old building needing an upgrade, the liberal international order, now almost 70 years old, needs to go through a period of renewal and reform.
An Enduring Legacy: The Democratic Party and Free and Open Trade, January 21st, 2014, Huffington Post. The global system created by Presidents FDR and Truman has done more to create opportunity, reduce poverty and advance democracy than perhaps any other policies in history.
Forward, or Backward? October 25th, 2012, Letras Libres. The English language version of my major essay about the 2012 elections which originally appeared in the October issue of the Mexico City based Spanish language journal, Letras Libres.
Video: The Age of Possibility, April 29th, 2011, Tisch College, Tufts University. Simon Rosenberg explores the notion that we are entering an era of unprecedented opportunity and possibility, and that more is possible today for the people of the world than ever before.
Crafting an American Response to the Rise of the Rest, January 21, 2010, Salon.com. In this essay written for Salon, Simon lays out three strategies for the Obama Administration to craft a comprehensive response to the new politics of the 21st Century.
Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century, July 24, 2009, Demos. An essay which ran as part of a leading British think tank's series of essays on the future of center-left politics.
Obama: No Realist He, June 16, 2009, Huffington Post. Simon offers some thoughts about Obama's global brand in the early days of the Iranian uprising. The essay drew many comments in its more than 24 hours on the front page of Huffington Post.