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Keep the Internet Free at Home and Abroad | Commentary

We are at risk of an Internet “cold war” if the U.S. does not stand up to dangerous proposals from repressive regimes to control the Internet. As governments and members of civil society and industry gather in Geneva for the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, countries of the like continue to push efforts to give their governments new powers to suppress their citizens’ unfettered access to the Internet.

As a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, I am generally supportive of the U.N.’s efforts to manage global systems, such as our air travel and alerts to infectious diseases. But the Internet is thriving on its own, and we are all better off keeping it that way.

At the dawn of the Internet age, the Clinton administration made a decision to support a collaborative model of Internet governance relying on scientific information-sharing methods that created the technologies that formed the Internet. We all benefited. The multi-stakeholder governance approach is what has allowed the Internet to flourish and foster innovation and growth in both developed and developing nations. Rather than a top-down, government-controlled method of dictating rules, this proven approach enables multiple equal parties — both nongovernmental and governmental — to meet, dialogue and determine a path forward together.

The system works well and spurred unparalleled investment. Since 1996 when the Clinton administration decided to take the “light touch” approach, the Internet broadband industry has invested nearly $1.2 trillion, and, in 2011 alone, U.S. broadband wired and wireless Internet companies collectively invested $44.5 billion. Altogether, Internet broadband represents nearly 5 percent of the American economy.

And today, more than 94 percent of Americans have access to a wired provider, and America leads the world in the use of new high-speed mobile broadband technology. As a result of our current regulatory approach to the Internet, Americans have adopted Internet access at faster rates every year — and our adoption rates have accordingly become the envy of the world.

Worldwide, more than 2.7 billion people use the Internet, nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. Those of us in this “fortunate forty” who use the Internet as a gateway to commerce, education and political interaction must do more to ensure the other 4.3 billion people join us in enjoying equal access to information and ideas that fuels economic growth. But the way to do that is not through international organizations’ regulation.

Unfortunately, in December of last year, some delegates to the World Conference on International Telecommunications sought to increase international and domestic regulations over many aspects of the Internet. Proponents of government intervention argue that we must update the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, an international telecommunications treaty that was last updated in 1988, long before the rise of the commercial Internet. But rather than update the treaty, they argued that states should have an equal right to manage Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources, a marked shift from the current system in which the U.S. Department of Commerce decides who runs the body responsible for regulating the Internet’s address system (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority). It is hardly a coincidence that the nations seeking such controls — Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran — see the free Internet as a threat to their repressive behaviors.

Luckily, the United States led the opposition to such proposals, making the case that a range of multi-stakeholder organizations with technical expertise can better make “agile, rapid-fire decisions.” Fifty-five other countries, including most of Europe, would not sign the revised treaty and instead advocated the importance of a multi-stakeholder Internet policy. But continued U.S. leadership will be needed to continue to fend off these ill-advised proposals and avoid an ideological battle over Internet controls.

As he awaits Congress’ approval to take the job as the top domestic Internet influencer, President Barack Obama’s nominee, Tom Wheeler, should be encouraged to recognize the significant role that this policy of deliberate self-restraint played in the Internet’s success. We must now strongly advocate for an Internet that can reach developing world communities without the burdens of high costs or bureaucratic barriers.

Those of us in the “fortunate forty” should ensure that the Internet remains available by encouraging those who govern to practice regulatory self-restraint — both for the sake of American citizens and for the global community.

Nancy Soderberg is a former deputy national security adviser and United Nations ambassador in the Clinton administration.

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