Republicans Fear Net Neutrality Plan Could Lead to UN Internet Powers

An Obama administration official dismisses any link between the FCC's rules and international authority over the Internet.

 Ethernet cables lead to a server at the Rittal stand at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair the day before the fair opens to visitors on March 4, 2013 in Hanover, Germany. (National Journal)

The U.S. government's plan to enact strong net neutrality regulations could embolden authoritarian regimes like China and Russia to seize more power over the Internet through the United Nations, a key Senate Republican warned Wednesday.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota argued that by claiming more authority over Internet access for net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission will undermine the ability of the U.S. to push back against international plots to control the Internet and censor content.

Countries like Russia already have made it clear that they want the International Telecommunications Union or another United Nations body to have more power over the Internet, Thune said.

"It seems like reclassifying broadband, as the administration is doing, is losing a valuable argument," Thune said at his panel's hearing on Internet governance. "How do you prevent ITU involvement when you're pushing to reclassify the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, and is everyone aware of that inherent contradiction?"

On Thursday, the FCC is set to vote on net neutrality regulations that would declare Internet access a "telecommunications service" under Title II. Advocates, including President Obama, argue that the move is the only way the FCC can enact rules that will hold up to legal challenges in court. The rules aim to prevent Internet providers from acting as "gatekeepers" and controlling what content users can access online.

David Gross, a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein who advises tech and telecom companies, agreed with Thune's warning.

The U.S. has consistently argued that the Internet is not a "telecommunication service" and therefore outside of the authority of the International Telecommunications Union, he explained. "If they were to find that Internet service is a telecommunications service, that would undoubtedly make the job of my successors much more complicated," Gross, a former ambassador to the ITU during the George W. Bush administration, said.

A top Obama administration official dismissed the comparison between net neutrality and UN control of the Internet.

"I don't think it's quite as stark as your description suggests, senator," Larry Strickling, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information, replied to Thune.

He acknowledged that countries like China and Russia are actively looking for ways to claim more power over the Internet through the UN. But there's nothing inconsistent about the U.S. opposing those efforts and supporting tough net neutrality rules, he argued.

Europe and Canada already consider the Internet a telecommunications service and have joined the U.S. in opposing pushes for more UN influence, Strickling said. No one has claimed that their position is hypocritical, he said.

"I fundamentally don't think this will change matters going forward," Stickling said. "The United States is opposed to intergovernmental resolution to these Internet issues. We will remain opposed to that."

Later in the hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and net neutrality supporter, argued that the FCC's rules will strengthen the ability of the U.S. to push for a free and open Internet on the international stage.

"I hope that our strong net neutrality rules can be the basis for an open Internet," Cantwell said.

This article was corrected to include the correct name of the law firm Wiley Rein.