United States Needs United Message: Don’t Regulate the Internet

Two weeks ago, Gigi Sohn, President and CEO of Public Knowledge, wrote “US communications policymaking, policymakers, industry and civil society groups (including Public Knowledge) of all stripes are in accord that the ITU’s jurisdiction should not expand to encompass regulation of the Internet.” That’s good news.

Last week, Harold Feld, Senior VP of Public Knowledge, challenged Representative Lee Terry for pointing out that advocates who asked the FCC to assert regulatory jurisdiction over the Internet were displaying a “certain level of hypocrisy” for opposing ITU jurisdiction of the Internet.Harold said that Rep. Terry’s hypocrisy charge somehow smacked of partisanship. But, it was the Obama Administration’s U.S. Ambassador, the Honorable Philip Verveer, who gave the first prescient warning about the unintended consequences of Internet regulation.In March 2010, before the FCC asserted its jurisdiction over the Internet, Ambassador Verveer reminded us that the FCC’s actions “could be employed by regimes that don’t agree with our perspectives about essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet and trying to be sure not to do anything to damage its dynamism and its organic development.”Harold accused the Ambassador of “carelessness” for lacking “enough sense not to echo and repeat Republican talking points.” Now that events have proven the wisdom of Ambassador Verveer’s warning – issued with the best interests of the U.S. in mind rather than partisan “messaging” – Harold owes Ambassador Verveer a public apology.

The U.S. has put itself in a very difficult (some would say “hypocritical”) position by simultaneously exerting domestic regulatory authority over the Internet while telling the rest of the world “no.”

Many who support government regulation of the Internet attempt to justify this inconsistency in jurisdictional treatment by noting that specific regulatory mandates proposed at the ITU would be inconsistent with specific Internet regulations at the FCC. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean their jurisdictional views are consistent. It merely means they support jurisdiction over the Internet only when they agree with the specific proposals of the regulatory authority that is asserting jurisdiction. Public Knowledge says the “ITU is not the ‘proper’ agency to oversee the Internet” because that agency may not agree with Public Knowledge.

That’s a pragmatic approach, not a consistent jurisdictional argument. When jurisdictional questions are at issue, specific policy proposals are, as a matter of pure logic, irrelevant. Jurisdiction confers only the power to decide. It does not mandate any particular outcome. Once an agency has jurisdiction, it has the power to implement and alter specific policies over time.

That’s why most conservatives oppose regulation of the Internet at all levels, whether state, federal or international. Conservatives understand that, once government exerts authority over a technology, it invariably finds reasons to regulate in ways interventionist advocates hadn’t foreseen. The Internet is not immune from the law of unintended consequences at home or abroad.

Ambassador Verveer foresaw the international consequences of the FCC’s parochial decision to regulate the Internet, because he recognized that the Internet is a truly global phenomenon. In his recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives (PDF), he observed, “Global interconnection is, of course, the single greatest imperative for a network of networks.”

He also observed that intergovernmental controls inevitably threaten the ability of the world’s citizens to freely connect and express themselves. In contrast to the central control advocate’s pro-regulatory meme (apparently suitable only for domestic politics), he recognized that an Internet free of government regulation “doesn’t reflect an absence of law.” It reflects the fundamental belief of democratic nations in the “laws of property, contract, and tort” that have always governed transactions in the commercial realm. That’s why opposing international regulatory jurisdiction over the Internet enjoys bi-partisan support in the U.S. And that’s why opposing regulation of the Internet at all levels is consistent with the principles of liberty that American’s hold dear.