International Innovation and Broadband

Philip L. Verveer
Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy 
Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, Federal Communications Bar Association, House of Sweden
Washington, DC
December 3, 2009

Thank you, Claes Hammar, for the kind welcome and introduction. Thank you to His Excellency Ambassador Hafstrom and Mrs. Hafstrom for making this magnificent facility available for this event. And thank you to Ericsson and our friend Barbara Baffer for sponsoring this event.

I also would like to acknowledge the presence of Ambassador Henrik Liligren, who represented Sweden here in Washington with much distinction, and of Ambassador Thomas Siebert, who represented the United States in Stockholm with similar distinction. My assigned topic is international innovation and broadband. This is very nearly redundant because in the world of international communications, broadband is—or, more properly, is at the foundation of—innovation.

I have discovered over the course of the last 3.5 months that one of the many compensations in serving as U.S. Coordinator is the opportunity to discuss priorities with communications ministers and with executives of many of the leading U.S. and foreign ICT companies. Explicitly or implicitly, broadband is the highest priority of virtually all of them. Just as, I should add, it is the principal item of interest at the FCC and NTIA.

And with respect to broadband, the leading questions in international discourse appear to be:

  • How to get it?
  • How to govern it?
  • How to protect it?

I will address each of these questions briefly.  In engaging foreign interlocutors on these issues, the State Department seeks to promote:

  • the extension and connectivity of communications infrastructure around the world
  • the free flow of information over broadband (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it the Internet), and
  • the preservation of the dynamism of the Internet.

How to Get It
In terms of the extending broadband, the State Department principally offers advice. We try to assist other countries with capacity building, most notably in the form of the training that the USTTI and many of our private companies offer. We promote the importance of the rule of law and of transparency and the desirability of having an autonomous regulator for attracting investment in ICT. And, with the significant assistance of our friends at the FCC, we make available advice on very important regulatory matters—how to conduct a spectrum auction and how to conduct a digital television transition are favored subjects these days. The NTIA broadband grant program also is a subject of much international interest and NTIA has been very generous in sharing its insights with foreign administrations as well.

How to Govern It
Internet governance is one of the most important and most contentious of my responsibilities. As I mentioned, protection of the dynamism of the Internet is one of the highest of the State Department’s and the country’s priorities. In general, we think that the way to achieve it is to leave it alone. This perhaps has an unattractively defensive appearance, but it is right as a practical matter—and we do well to be practical with something as critically important as the Internet.

These days there are two aspects of Internet governance that stand out. One is the FCC proceeding on Net Neutrality. The other is the constant discussion surrounding existing and imagined institutional structures for “controlling” the Internet.

To be absolutely clear, decisions involving network neutrality belong to the FCC. We at the State Department do not seek to influence the Commission’s decisions. We are, however, more than interested observers. That is because the Network Neutrality proceeding has attracted extensive attention around the world. I think it is fair to say that the level of international interest is very nearly universal. In some countries it is being interpreted as an initiative by the United States to regulate the Internet. And we are concerned that in some countries it may be used as a justification for blocking access for purposes of preventing unwelcome political, social, or cultural information from being disseminated to their citizens.

Chairman Genachowski addressed this issue, very effectively I thought, at the recent ITU Regulators’ Forum in Beirut. His remarks are posted on the FCC website and I commend them to you. But notwithstanding this and similar statements from FCC officials, this issue has not and will not go away. It almost certainly will become more pronounced at the time the FCC renders its decision.

Control of the Internet represents an even more fundamental matter. As the members of this audience will know, the history of the Internet is genuinely remarkable in countless ways—and if we can avoid serious error in the care and management of the Internet, the future of the Internet will be even more remarkable.

From the standpoint of our responsibilities at the State Department, there are two considerations involving control that stand out.
The first is most decidedly a function of history. The Internet today is the largest and most successful cooperative venture in human history. But in its origin, it was a U.S. government program. We don’t have either the time or the need tonight to review its metamorphosis, but there is one aspect of its conversion from a U.S. government-sponsored activity to its present status that is a centerpiece of our dialogue with many of our foreign interlocutors. That is the Department of Commerce’s relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and its relationship with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Again as you will know, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Strickling (and with the very capable assistance of our friends Fiona Alexander and Larry Atlas), NTIA recently concluded a new agreement with ICANN that is styled “Affirmation of Commitments.” In the Affirmation, ICANN accepted a set of obligations that will provide governments and other stakeholders with an opportunity to review salient aspects of ICANN’s operations on a regular basis. The Affirmation has been met with very nearly universal approbation. Other governments understand it to be an important enlargement of oversight from something that was understood to be an exclusive province of the U.S. government to something in which they now have an opportunity to participate.

As was entirely predictable—and in fact predicted—the new approach to ICANN oversight led immediately to international interest in potential changes to the IANA contract, which involves the domain name system and the root zone file, when it comes up for renewal in 2011. As with the Network Neutrality decision, discussions about this with the international community will become more intense as we approach the expiration of the IANA contract.

Now partly because of the Internet’s importance, but also partly because the Internet’s openness is not congenial to some national administrations, there is continuing pressure to impose some form of inter-governmental control over it. I want to be clear that I am not questioning the motives of many of our foreign interlocutors that seek more traditional control over the Internet (although I am questioning the motives of some of them). But I am questioning the desirability of permitting it to happen.

Our concerns go back to the damage that intergovernmental control inevitably would do to the dynamism of the Internet. To remit control to an existing or new body composed of nation states would be to introduce decisional delays and the injection of extraneous not-technical matters, including some that could threaten the free flow of information that we believe is fundamentally important.

In this regard, it must be said that the International Telecommunication Union, the institution most often mentioned as a potential overseer of the Internet, is both venerable and indispensable. The United States and every other nation need it for many purposes—we wouldn’t be able to manage spectrum without it, to mention one obvious example. But for the reasons I mentioned, it should not become involved in the management of the Internet. The United States has and will continue to resist efforts by certain nations to give the ITU a role, just as we will resist efforts to establish alternative intergovernmental arrangements aimed at Internet governance.

The alternative existing structure, the explicitly non-decisional Internet Governance Forum established as a result of recommendations emanating from the World Summit on the Information Society has performed very well as a space for all of the Internet’s stakeholders to convene and to discuss matters of mutual interest. The United States has recommended that the United Nations extend the life of the IGF beyond next year’s expiration. Given the similar views of the majority of national administrations, commercial operators, civil society representatives, and individual experts, we are optimistic that it will continue on.

How to Protect It
The security of the Internet is raised in every bi-lateral encounter we have. That is understandable, given the Internet’s importance, and also its vulnerability. Cybersecurity in the narrow sense requires dealing with threats of cyber warfare and cyber crime, as well as cyber vandalism undertaken by maladjusted individuals. The overall importance of the matter is reflected in President Obama’s early order for a 60 day review of our cybersecurity posture, something that resulted in a very readable and very useful report.

The international reach of the Internet means that cybersecurity necessarily has a very large cooperative component. The State Department’s contribution to cybersecurity tends toward capacity building. We try to be sure that other countries have made protection of their national networks a priority and that they and their citizens are aware of the available techniques and commercially-available products which will aid in the effort. As with virtually everything we do, we rely extensively on the efforts and resources of the private sector to accomplish the task.

I would like to conclude with this very sincere invitation. The State Department is willing and even anxious to hear from you and your clients. If you have a message to deliver about the international aspects of broadband—equipment, transmission, applications, content, human rights, or other aspects, please come see us. Thank you.