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Grain: Even in Election Year, Parties Unite for Web

At a time when U.S. politics is dominated by unusually nasty partisanship that makes it hard for government to do much of anything, it’s stunning to see unity in Washington, D.C., over international rules for the Internet. That’s a good thing for those of us who believe the Internet is a vital force for individual empowerment and economic opportunity that can help lift those who are struggling to make ends meet.

Leading up to the political conventions, both Republicans and Democrats included language in their party platforms promising protections for Internet freedom.

Direct government censorship of Internet content is unlikely in the United States, but international regulation still poses risks. Such intrusion could directly hurt Americans by stifling the Internet investment and innovation that delivers new services to consumers and powers economic growth. Considering that Internet-based services and technologies are one of America’s biggest creators of jobs and opportunity, that’s a risk we cannot tolerate.

Some countries, including a number of repressive regimes, have been pushing to use an upcoming meeting of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to expand government’s role in Internet operations. Although camouflaged with niceties about Internet security, some pending proposals would provide legal cover for government censorship of Internet content and the closure of whole websites that one or another government doesn’t like. Other suggestions could mean fees and regulations that would undermine innovation and could add new costs for consumers.

The U.S. delegation issued its own first round of proposals, adamantly stating that the United States will not support proposals that increase the exercise of control over Internet governance or content. The proposal argues that the Internet has evolved to operate in an environment that is “beyond the scope or mandate of the ITRs or the International Telecommunication Union.”

Recently, the Obama administration vowed to resist expanded governmental control of Internet governance or content, noting that: “The Internet has achieved global interconnection without the development of any international regulatory regime. The development of such a formal regulatory regime could risk undermining its growth.”

And astonishingly, for once, the administration’s position has wide support across the political spectrum. The House of Representatives recently approved a resolution that urges U.S. government officials to oppose U.N. regulation of the Internet. The vote was unanimous: 414-0.

The Clinton administration had it right 15 years ago when it predicted that “innovation, expanded services, broader participation and lower prices will arise in a market-driven arena, not in an environment that operates as a regulated industry.”

That philosophy has empowered an incredible communications revolution that has reshaped our daily routines in almost every way imaginable. Whether finding information, using government services, accessing medical care, watching sports and movies, shopping, working with business partners or supporting political candidates, the Internet has changed it for the better.

Sometimes government regulation makes sense – for protecting consumers’ safety and health, blocking predatory lending, guaranteeing a minimum wage or barring racial discrimination, to name a few areas where we expect government to intervene when people lack the power to protect themselves.

But the Internet’s structure enhances individual power, and the Internet has grown successfully because of it. It has thrived because government has largely stepped aside in favor of a multistakeholder process in which technical experts and market participants work out rules based on openness and inclusion. The drive for international regulation puts that process at risk.

The Internet works. Americans need to work together to resist government intrusion that could break it.

David Grain is founder and managing partner of Grain Management and the CEO of Grain Communications Group Inc. He is a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council.

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