Legislation that would make it official U.S. policy to promote a global Internet "free from government control" could restrict the U.S. Federal Communications Commission from using its authority and prevent law enforcement agencies from taking action against cybercriminals, some critics have said.
Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee objected to the bill during a hearing to amend it Wednesday, after some digital rights groups also raised concerns this week.
Supporters of the bill said it's an attempt to send a clear signal to other countries that the U.S. opposes a takeover of Internet governance by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union, but critics questioned if the legislation was a back-handed effort to limit the authority of the FCC.
The bill, similar to a sense-of-Congress resolution that passed last year before the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), allows lawmakers to again question the FCC's net neutrality rules and limit the agency's authority in a coming transition to all-IP networks by telecom carriers, said Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat.
"This bill will have many unintended consequences on domestic telecom policy," she said. "The bill is about rehashing the debates of the past. The bill is also about prejudicing the debates of the future, specifically concerning the transition to IP-based voice services."
Representative Anna Eshoo, also a California Democrat, asked the Energy and Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee to change the bill from official government policy back to a sense-of-Congress resolution. The subcommittee should also make it clear that its aim is to shield the Internet from the control of international regulatory bodies, not from domestic agencies, she wrote in a letter to subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican.
The current language in the bill "could affect domestic efforts by the United States and our allies to address cybersecurity, combat cybercrimes, maintain public safety, and ensure the free flow of information over the Internet," she wrote.
The bill would make it official U.S. government policy to "promote a global Internet free from government control and to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet."
Republican members of the subcommittee said they were confused about the objections to the bill, when Democratic lawmakers supported the earlier resolution containing similar language. The bill is aimed at preventing an Internet takeover by the ITU, said Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.
"With all the problems we face domestically and internationally, the last thing we need is to back away from aggressively defending Internet freedom," she said. "Failing to [pass the bill] would send an incredibly bad and discouraging message to the rest of the world and put our innovators here at home in a very difficult position."
Congress must make it clear it opposes international regulations of the Internet, added Walden, author of the bill. Last December's WCIT "was the start, not the end, of international efforts to regulate the Internet," he said. "And just as international opponents of an Internet free from government control are redoubling their efforts so, too, must we."
Earlier Wednesday, in letters to the committee, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association also raised concerns about the language in the bill, offered by Walden.
The ambiguous wording of the bill could be seen as U.S. opposition to international groups working together on Internet issues, CDT and New America said.
"In the United States, consumer protection statutes, antitrust laws, and other state and federal regulations have formed a policy framework aimed at protecting users and promoting competition, both online and off," their letter said. "Just as Congress did not want to cede the United States' ability to institute national policy to an international institution, it should not curtail its own ability to address domestic issues through well-considered national legislation developed by a democratically elected Congress."
The subcommittee will continue its markup of the Internet freedom legislation on Thursday.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.