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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at State of the Net 2016 Conference

January 25, 2016

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
State of the Net Conference
Washington, D.C.
January 25, 2016

—As prepared for delivery—

I want to thank Tim Lordan and the organizers of the State of the Net Conference for inviting me back to speak this year.  The snow storm has obviously put a damper on attendance this year but since I live only a few blocks away, I had only minimal problems dealing with the ice and snow to get here this afternoon.  Our topic for this session is to look at the state of Internet governance from an international perspective.  In that regard, it is only fitting that the panelist who had to travel the greatest distance to get here, Bertrand de la Chapelle, was able to make the trek from Paris to be here this afternoon.

To introduce this topic, I would like to provide some perspective on recent developments with respect to Internet governance and then provide my list of issues and questions that will likely form the basis of discussions on this topic for 2016 and beyond.  Simply put, the overarching issue with respect to Internet governance is who gets to decide how the Internet runs as reflected in the continuing debate between advocates for multistakeholder decisionmaking and those who want the key decisions made by governments in multilateral organizations.  The Obama Administration has consistently supported the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.  As we begin a new year, we have reason to be optimistic about the future of Internet governance but we must remain vigilant and push back against challenges by those who want only governments to decide.

We have come a long way since December 2012 when the International Telecommunication Union’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) ended in disarray. At this conference, some nations argued that the new realities of today’s communications and information networks required an overhaul of international regulations to give governments more power.  The US and others argued that these same realities and the proliferation of stakeholders that have emerged in the Internet economy demonstrate how unfit government-only institutions such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are for dealing with these issues.  Coming out of the WCIT, it was clear that many countries in the developing world were open to finding solutions to these problems through means such as multistakeholder processes but they just are not comfortable enough with this form of governance to join in.  Our challenge was to work hard to increase the number of countries that support the multistakeholder model. 

Since the WCIT, we have seen greater acceptance of the multistakeholder approach in developing countries.  In March 2014, we announced our intent to transition our stewardship of the IANA functions to the global Internet community.  Our announcement sparked the engagement of stakeholders around the world to develop the transition plan and everyone has to be pleased by the energy, dedication and level of effort put forth in the development of the plan.

In April 2014, Brazil hosted the successful NetMundial Conference. The conference brought together a wide range of stakeholders including technical experts, civil society groups, industry representatives and government officials who agreed that Internet governance should be built on democratic multistakeholder processes.  At the June 2014 ICANN meeting in London, Minister Lu Wei of China indicated some level of appreciation by his government for the multistakeholder process, particularly as demonstrated at NetMundial.  Then, at the end of 2014, the International Telecommunication Union’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, Korea concluded with a consensus outcome that the ITU should remain focused on its current mandate and not expand its role into Internet and cybersecurity issues.

We saw this momentum carry over into 2015.  Internet stakeholders made impressive progress last year on the IANA transition plan and managed to work through some very difficult issues on improving ICANN’s accountability.  India – the world’s largest democracy – announced its support for the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance at the June ICANN meeting in Buenos Aires.

In December, the international community provided another boost to the multistakeholder model when the United Nations’ High Level Meeting on the 10-year review of the implementation of the World Summit on the Information Society agreed to extend the mandate of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for an additional ten years. This extension, which is twice the length of the IGF’s original five-year mandate, will provide needed certainty to the IGF donor community.  Also, the United States and other like-minded countries successfully negotiated language in the final outcomes document that affirms the primacy of the multistakeholder approach to developing the information society and defeated proposals from Russia to create a new United Nations-based intergovernmental legal framework for Internet policymaking.

Yet, despite this progress, it is clear that there are still those who oppose our efforts to maintain an open Internet and the free flow of information across the globe. In fact, the same week the United Nations reaffirmed its support for the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance, China held its own World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen at which the government appeared to return to its previous stance that Internet governance was the responsibility of governments.  The statement issued at the end of the conference was notable for not including any mention whatsoever of the multistakeholder approach.

As we begin 2016, what do we see as the landscape for Internet governance this year?

Countries around the world will continue to grapple with the challenges of the open Internet. We all accept and take for granted that the Internet has produced dramatic economic growth and incredible innovation as well as providing an important platform for free expression around the globe.  At the same time, we have seen the growth of sophisticated malware and other cyber security threats and an increasing need to protect the privacy of Internet users and to combat the theft of intellectual property online. These challenges have tested governments’ ability to balance these important interests with the equally important need for openness. In their attempts to do something to protect their citizens and businesses, governments sometimes rush to put up digital walls between their countries and the rest of the world by proposing or instituting data localization laws, as well as imposing limitations on data storage, data transfer, and data processing. Such moves, however, threaten to undermine the central idea of the Internet as a global, connected network of networks. And in responding to these concerns, governments sometimes lose sight of the power of the multistakeholder process to find solutions to these problems.

With that lead-in, here are what I see as the leading Internet governance questions for 2016:

Will we complete the IANA stewardship transition this year?  There is a lot riding on this question.  First, of course, we want to preserve and strengthen the multistakeholder coordination of the Domain Name System through ICANN.  Second, the efforts to date represent the largest multistakeholder process ever undertaken.  Not only will ICANN be stronger as a result of this effort but a successful outcome here will serve as a powerful example to the world that the multistakeholder model can solve difficult issues regarding the Internet. 

Will the multistakeholder model expand to meet the needs of the developing world?  With its new ten-year mandate, the IGF is poised to play a major role here if the global Internet community takes up the challenge.  This will also be an important year to determine if the NetMundial Initiative can become a useful resource.  It has been handicapped from the start by its failure to make a compelling case to attract the support of the business community and the Internet Society.  Its initial funding runs out this summer so it does not have much more time to demonstrate what value it can provide.

Where is China in the Internet governance debate?  It has participated in ICANN – it even served on the first two accountability and review teams and Minister Lu Wei has said supportive things about the multistakeholder model in the past.  But does the recent Wuzhen conference indicate that China intends to go its own way on these issues, more in line with its recent statements about the cyber sovereignty of nations and the need for multilateral, not multistakeholder, Internet governance?

And finally, can the multistakeholder model be used effectively to address Internet policy issues that come up in the context of privacy, cybersecurity and other issues where governments historically have had a mandate to act?  For our part at NTIA, we have been utilizing the multistakeholder process the past few years as an alternative to traditional legislation and regulation and we will continue to do so this year with respect to work on drones, cybersecurity, privacy and copyright issues.

In our final year in office, the Obama Administration will remain active and engaged around the globe whether it is participating in the IGF, at ICANN or in any other venue where these issues will be debated and discussed.  Every one of us has a stake in ensuring the continued growth, job formation and wealth creation that an open Internet brings. This is why I urge you all to work to preserve and grow this vibrant platform of innovation, economic growth and free expression.

Thank you for listening.