WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers on Thursday said they are united when it comes to keeping the Internet free from centralized control and preventing the United Nations from gaining power over Web content and infrastructure.
The U.S. government wants to bring as much ammunition as possible to a December meeting in Dubai where delegations from 193 countries will discuss whether to hand governance of the Internet over to the United Nations.
The United States fears December's treaty-writing conference could turn the Internet into a political bargaining chip and could empower efforts by countries like China, Russia and Iran to erode Internet freedoms and isolate their populations.
"We may have our differences on domestic telecommunications policy, but having those policies decided at the international level would be the worst thing that could happen," Representative Marsha Blackburn said at a hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
The Tennessee Republican commended the Obama administration's efforts to thwart giving an international governing body power over the Internet.
Vinton Cerf, regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet and now vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc, cautioned that a move toward top-down control dictated by governments could hinder Internet innovation and growth.
That path, he said, "promotes exclusion, hidden deals, potential for indiscriminate surveillance and tight centralized management."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a resolution to reject the proposed international takeover of the Internet and preserve the current "multi-stakeholder" model of governance.
"In many ways, this is a referendum on the future of the Internet," Republican Representative Mary Bono Mack said at Thursday's hearing.
"If this power grab is successful, I'm concerned that the next Arab Spring will instead become a Russia Winter where free speech is chilled, not encouraged, and the Internet becomes a wasteland of unfilled hopes, dreams and opportunities," said Bono Mack, a sponsor of the resolution.
Social media sites Twitter, Facebook and Google's YouTube played a big role in last year's "Arab Spring" revolution.
The Internet is currently policed loosely, with technical bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the World Wide Web Consortium largely dictating its infrastructure and management. The United States holds significant sway with those bodies.
When the delegations gather in Dubai in December, they will renegotiate a U.N. treaty last revisited in 1988, and debate proposals that would consolidate control over the Internet with the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
"During the treaty negotiations, the most lethal threat to Internet freedom may not come from a full-frontal assault but through insidious and seemingly innocuous expansions of inter-governmental powers," said Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell.
Proposals out of the Middle East, McDowell said, would change the definition of telecommunications in a way that arguably would include the Internet, and would suddenly sweep an entire industry into the rubric of ITU rules.
The Republican commissioner blasted claims from ITU leadership that no nations have proposed expanding the ITU's jurisdiction to the Internet.
"An infinite number of avenues exist to accomplish the same goal, and it is camouflaged subterfuge that proponents of Internet freedom should watch for most vigilantly," he said.
The lawmakers fear that countries like China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others could politick smaller nations who have little interest in the issue to back them in giving them greater ability to isolate their populations and silence political dissidents.
The United States is concerned that authoritarian regimes will campaign for their initiatives by promising to back proposals from developing countries that would like to see tariffs on content-heavy Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix.
"Some ITU officials have dismissed our concerns over these issues as mere election year politics, and nothing could be further from the truth," McDowell said. "The threats are real and not imagined."
The United States will step up its meetings with other countries to thwart an expansion of ITU's authority, with about 50 or so bilateral meetings to take place in the lead-up to the December talks.
"We're investing a lot of effort in trying to be in the best possible position to explain why these kinds of things would be a bad idea," Ambassador Philip Verveer, deputy assistant secretary of state, said.
The United States on May 8 formed its core delegation of government officials who will head to Dubai, including members of the State Department, Commerce Department, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, FCC and NASA.
President Barack Obama earlier this week told Congress he intended to assign ambassadorial rank to Terry Kramer to lead the delegation, Verveer said.
Kramer was a long-time executive at Vodafone Group Plc. He now teaches at Harvard University and serves as a board member or adviser for numerous telecom companies and nonprofits.
Private-sector members and other representatives will be added in September and those voices are expected to add force to the U.S. government's argument to preserve decentralized control of the Internet.
Reporting By Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Gary Hill