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'Net neutrality will turn the internet communist – and make Iran's day'

We think that's what this former FCC commish is trying to say

Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell has attempted to revive the argument that proposed net neutrality rules in the US will lead to a UN-run (read, Chinese-run) internet.

These draft rules are due to be voted on by FCC commissioners next week.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Dictators Love the FCC’s Plan to Regulate the Internet", McDowell presses the giant red Freedom button when he argues:

The FCC’s new definition of the Internet as a phone network could trigger expanded jurisdiction over the Web through existing treaties of the International Telecommunication Union, a regulatory arm of the United Nations.

The article quotes a number of people, from another former FCC chairman to a former tech policy ambassador to the UN, arguing that by introducing government regulation of the internet in the US, it undermines the ability to argue against government regulation in other nations.

"By creating an irreconcilable contradiction between America’s domestic and foreign policies, the cause of an open and freedom-enhancing global Internet will suffer," McDowell argues.

The article does not quote current UN tech policy ambassador Daniel Sepulveda however, who last month poured cold water over that very argument, calling it "fundamentally flawed."

"There is a distinction between internet access and the content and services delivered over the internet, which is what people generally think of as the internet," Sepulveda argued. "We remain steadfast in opposing regulation of that content or services through international multilateral bodies."

That article was in response to yet another op-ed, this time in the Washington Post by policy wonk Larry Downes, which made the same basic points as McDowell when he said: "The public utility approach would provide opponents of a free and open internet ample opportunity to call out US efforts as hypocritical, unnecessarily undermining our authority."

The truth of the matter

The argument is just one that is being fired at the FCC's rules in advance of an expected vote on 26 February, almost all of which fall along hyperbolic partisan lines. (There was a whole sub-saga earlier this week about whether FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was a "lapdog" or not.)

But what of the actual substance to the claim? Well, both sides are equally right and wrong.

Yes, there is little or no doubt that the more authoritarian governments of the world will continue to push for greater control over the internet, and they will continue to do so through the United Nations and its subsidiaries, because that is the most effective route for them.

We covered earlier this month how China and Russia have put in a document for the UN General Assembly at the end of the year that will, yet again, try to push governmental oversight into content issues. So, in that sense, McDowell/Downes/Republicans are right.

What is also likely true is that those countries will misrepresent the proposed Title II legislation in the United States as a way to undermine US-led arguments for keeping the internet as free from government regulation as possible.

But, on the other hand, it is quite clear that the proposed net neutrality rules do NOT include content, merely the provision of internet access, and that is a huge distinction that is not lost on the world's governments.

In addition, the idea by logical extension that US domestic policy should be swayed by possible future misrepresentation from other countries is ludicrous. So in that sense, Sepulveda/Wheeler/Democrats are right.

So will the UN takeover if Title II legislation is applied to internet access within the United States? No. No more than if Facebook decides to take down specific pages or Google pulls some links out of its search engine.

The big dividing lines in internet policy and governance discussions is in keeping governments out of content, and preventing companies from controlling access. On those key aspects, the US is pretty much aligned. But don't expect to read about that in the op-ed pages anytime soon. ®

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