Back in May, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) seeking public comments and recommendations from stakeholders on its international internet policy priorities. Among other issues, NTIA sought comment on: 1) challenges to the free flow of information online, 2) the multistakeholder approach to internet governance, and 3) privacy and security. Last week, Public Knowledge submitted its comments in response to NTIA’s public notice. If you’re interested in what we had to say, but not so interested in churning through 10 pages of policy analysis, then please enjoy this high-level summary of our comments submission.
Threats to the Free Flow of Information Online
The open internet faces numerous challenges driven by the tension between a borderless, international network and an increasingly protectionist, and, in some places, authoritarian global geopolitical environment. In some instances, these authoritarian governments directly hinder the flow of online information. Certain regimes, for example, are exerting strict control over the types and quantities of information on their national networks. But even consolidated liberal democracies, such as many European countries, adopt philosophies of legitimate free speech that conflict with our nation’s First Amendment and add friction to the flow of information online.
Policies related to data localization and free trade agreements can also create adverse effects on the internet’s free flow of information. Misaligned data localization policies erect barriers to online information flow regardless of whether they are motivated by economic protectionism or by good faith efforts to provide access to data for law enforcement. Embedding intellectual property laws that fail to limit secondary and intermediary liability into free trade agreements likewise hinders the free flow of information online by interfering with consumer choice and ultimately imposing real economic costs on users.
Public Knowledge believes that NTIA can play an important role in helping to address these complex challenges by ensuring that the U.S. leads by example through the promotion of an open internet and a multistakeholder approach to internet governance. This can be accomplished in part by engaging in multistakeholder forums and initiatives to advance rules and policies that enable an open internet such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the U.S. IGF, and RightsCon.
Multistakeholder Internet Governance and the IANA Stewardship Transition
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) performs three core Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions on behalf of the global internet community. These core functions are protocol assignments, internet number resources, and root zone management. In (sort of) plain English, this means ICANN maintains the codes and numbers used in internet protocols, coordinates internet protocol addresses, and assigns, administers, and records the top-level domain names such as “.com.”
About 20 years ago, the U.S. set an internet policy goal to privatize IANA stewardship, with NTIA noting at the time that the internet’s technical management “should fully reflect the global diversity of Internet users.” In the years since, NTIA has led a multistakeholder process of transitioning IANA stewardship into non-governmental hands. This process culminated in 2016 with NTIA’s approval of the Stewardship Transition Proposal and the expiration of the U.S. government’s contract with ICANN. These events triggered a protracted public debate over the role of the United States in domain name system (DNS) governance. An NOI sought public comments as to whether the IANA Transition should be unwound to reinstate U.S. oversight of the DNS root zone.
Public Knowledge’s answer is an unequivocal “no.” The IANA Transition was the successful result of a coordinated effort by diverse stakeholders including businesses, civil society organizations, and others from throughout the world and provided proof of concept for a bottom-up and transparent global approach to internet governance. Not only do significant, practical legal challenges exist to any attempts at unwinding the Transition, but any efforts by Congress or the U.S. government to wrest back control over DNS management would endanger the open internet as governments around the world mobilize to create a fractured internet of national networks.
The Multistakeholder Approach to Cybersecurity
The multistakeholder model of internet policymaking has proven to be an effective approach to addressing cybersecurity issues. NTIA-coordinated efforts to address pressing cybersecurity issues have yielded successful results such as the recent Report to the President regarding botnets and other automated, distributed threats. The multistakeholder approach is particularly crucial to policymaking in this area because transparent, cross-sector engagement can counteract the current environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding cybersecurity. We recently proposed that cybersecurity could be more successfully managed through elements of sustainability management for this very reason, among others. As we noted, multistakeholder-developed processes can also help to combat efforts by certain entities that use cybersecurity as a rationale for online censorship, widespread surveillance, and other actions that violate human rights.
NTIA’s Role Going Forward
Thanks in significant part to NTIA, the U.S. government has shown leadership in championing a borderless, open internet and a multistakeholder approach to internet governance. Public Knowledge urges NTIA to continue in its role helping to ensure that the U.S. leads by example through the promotion of an open internet and a multistakeholder approach to internet governance. This includes engaging with global internet governance stakeholders and convening multistakeholder processes to address key cybersecurity challenges.
And if you do prefer to scour through 10 pages of policy analysis, you can read our full comments here.