When Philip Verveer was confirmed last year as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, our nation was fortunate to have one of the most thoughtful, knowledgeable and skilled experts in global communications advancing the nation’s interests at the State Department. This is one reason that the attack on Amb. Verveer in the Huffington Post this week by Harold Feld of the organization Public Knowledge is so unfortunate and so wide off the mark. Feld attacks a distinguished U.S. civil servant in the interest of advancing a deeply misguided view of the Internet. Amb. Verveer deserves better.
Here’s what happened. Speaking at a public forum earlier this month, Amb. Verveer expressed concern that the push to impose “net neutrality” regulations on Internet companies might complicate U.S. diplomatic efforts. So Feld accused Amb. Verveer of mouthing “Republican talking points” and of undermining the FCC’s recently released Broadband Plan.
The two of us come from different political parties, but we both support expanding Internet use at home and abroad as an essential component of free speech and organizing free assembly as championed by Amb. Verveer and Sec. Clinton. Neither of us mouths “Republican talking points,” and we do not believe Amb. Verveer does so either.
Feld makes serious charges, so it’s worth revisiting what Amb. Verveer said to get the full measure of his remarks. Indeed, it’s telling that in his article, Feld did not extend Amb. Verveer the courtesy of actually quoting his full remarks.
Here’s what Amb. Verveer said: “I can tell you from my travels around the world and my discussions with figures in various governments around the world there is a very significant preoccupation with respect to what we are proposing with respect to broadband and especially with respect to the net neutrality.”
Amb. Verveer further elaborated, saying that the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding “is one that could be employed by regimes that don’t agree with our perspectives about essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet and trying to be sure not to do anything to damage its dynamism and its organic development. It could be employed as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activities that we would disagree with pretty profoundly.”
This isn’t mouthing GOP talking points or undermining the Broadband plan. It is instead doing precisely what good diplomats are supposed to do: listening to your colleagues in foreign countries when they raise legitimate concerns and treating those concerns with respect and due deference. Ambassador Verveer’s comments and concerns are entirely legitimate. As former diplomats, we know firsthand how important consistent policies and firm, clear principles are in conducting successful foreign policy. If a nation’s rhetoric and actions send conflicting or confusing signals, it is a diplomat’s obligation to help clear the air. This is not schmoozing about one’s political views, as Feld cynically alleged. It’s called doing one’s job.
It is worth noting that Amb. Verveer’s remarks fall well into line with Sec. Clinton’s Internet Freedom agenda. At Sec. Clinton’s landmark speech earlier this year at the Newseum, she noted that “even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” Sec. Clinton’s Internet Freedom agenda seeks to ensure that governments do not start meddling with the Internet to advance the interests of the state or of particular ideologies. The United States must tread lightly as it contemplates saddling its domestic Internet with a suite of new regulations lest it end up giving a green light for other nations to do so as well, nations without our country’s commitment to human rights and free speech. The reasons for this are pragmatic, not political.
Consider an analogy: In the same way it is more difficult to advance a free trade agenda abroad when we impose tariffs at our ports, it is difficult to champion an unfettered Internet when the government is considering placing new restrictions on the Internet’s development and evolution.
Caving in to the heated rhetoric of Harold Feld and others to satisfy short-term political needs undermines the best argument the US government has against more repressive governments clamping down on online freedom.
Consider developments in just the last year involving two countries with poor human rights records. China regulates its Internet in a manner that enables the ruling party to spy on and harass human rights activists. Iran interferes with its information and communications systems to target and crack down on democracy advocates. These and other governments claim that they do so in the public interest - they say they are defending public order. The United States is able to pressure these countries to open and free their networks because ours are currently free from meddlesome rules and regulations. Our ability to press others to free their Internet is diminished if we begin to regulate ours. One of us laid out this argument in a recent Forbes piece.
Feld’s attack on a highly respected diplomat is disturbing and serves to undercut the administration’s foreign policy goals, especially Secretary Clinton’s “Internet Doctrine.” It is a view that is far removed from the Obama administration’s own policies which, to this point, have been subtle and non-intrusive. Contrary to his assertions, it is Feld, not Amb. Verveer, who is undercutting the administration.
Nancy Soderberg served as an Ambassador to the United Nations and as Deputy Assistant to the President at the National Security Council. Ken Adelman served as an Ambassador to the United Nations and arms control director under President Reagan.