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US government rescinds 'leave internet alone' policy

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The US government’s policy of leaving the Internet alone is over, according to Obama’s top official at the Department of Commerce.

Instead, an “Internet Policy 3.0” approach will see policy discussions between government agencies, foreign governments, and key Internet constituencies, according to Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling, with those discussions covering issues such as privacy, child protection, cybersecurity, copyright protection, and Internet governance.

The outcomes of such discussions will be “flexible” but may result in recommendations for legislation or regulation, Strickling said in a speech at the Media Institute in Washington this week.

The new approach is a far cry from a US government that consciously decided not to intrude into the internet’s functioning and growth and in so doing allowed an academic network to turn into a global communications phenomenon.

Strickling referred to these roots arguing that it was “the right policy for the United States in the early stages of the Internet, and the right message to send to the rest of the world.” But, he continued, “that was then and this is now. As we at NTIA approach a wide range of Internet policy issues, we take the view that we are now in the third generation of Internet policy making.”

Outlining three decades of internet evolution - from transition to commercialization, from the garage to Main Street, and now, starting in 2010, the “Policy 3.0” approach - Strickling argued that with the internet is now a social network as well a business network. “We must take rules more seriously.”

He cited a number of examples where this new approach was needed: end users worried about credit card transactions, content providers who want to prevent their copyright, companies concerned about hacking, network neutrality, and foreign governments worried about Internet governance systems.

The decision to effectively end the policy that made the internet what it is today is part of a wider global trend of governments looking to impose rules on use of the network by its citizens.

In the UK, the Digital Economy Bill currently making its way through Parliament has been the subject of significant controversy for advocating strict rules on copyright infringement and threatening to ban people from the internet if they are found to do so. The bill includes a wide variety of other measures, including giving regulator Ofcom a wider remit, forcing ISPs to monitor their customers’ behavior, and allowing the government to take over the dot-uk registry.

In New Zealand, a similar measure to the UK’s cut-off provision has been proposed by revising the Copyright Act to allow a tribunal to fine those found guilty of infringing copyright online as well as suspend their Internet accounts for up to six months. And in Italy this week, three Google executives were sentenced to jail for allowing a video that was subsequently pulled down to be posted onto its YouTube video site.

Internationally, the Internet Governance Forum – set up by under a United Nations banner to deal with global governance issues – is due to end its experimental run this year and become an acknowledged institution. However, there are signs that governments are increasingly dominating the IGF, with civil society and the Internet community sidelined in the decision-making process.

In this broader context, the US government’s newly stated policy is more in line with the traditional laissez-faire internet approach. Internet Policy 3.0 also offers a more global perspective than the isolationist approach taken by the previous Bush administration.

In explicitly stating that foreign governments will be a part of the upcoming discussions, Strickling recognizes the United States’ unique position as the country that gives final approval for changes made to the internet’s “root zone.” Currently the global Internet is dependent on an address book whose contents are changed through a contract that the US government has granted to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN), based in Los Angeles.

ICANN recently adjusted its own agreement with the US government to give it more autonomy and now reports to the global Internet community through a series of reviews. Strickling sits on the panel of one of those reviews.

Overall, this new approach could enable the US government to regain the loss of some of its direct influence through recommendations made in policy reports. But internet old hands will still decry the loss of a policy that made the network what it is today. ®

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