If you ever wondered why Washington officials are hesitant to depart from their teleprompters to talk honestly in plain English, Harold Feld's rhetorical beat down of Assistant Secretary of State Phil Verveer could serve as exhibit A. Responding to a question at the Media Institute, a Washington think tank, Verveer decided to treat his audience like adults with a nuanced and principled explanation of how the adoption of new Internet regulations by the FCC could create diplomatic challenges abroad.
Though careful not to voice any opinion about the "net neutrality" regulations pending at the Commission, Verveer observed that such rules could be twisted by oppressive governments "as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activities that we would disagree with pretty profoundly." Without specifically identifying which countries he had in mind, Verveer correctly noted that some governments do not share the U.S. commitment "not to do anything to damage [the Internet's] dynamism and its organic development." He noted that enactment of net neutrality rules has the potential to create a lot of work for U.S. diplomats who will need to explain why U.S. regulation of the Internet is okay, but their's isn't.
Instead of thanking Verveer for a realistic assessment of how the world works, Mr. Feld slapped him upside the head for supposedly undermining both President Obama's and Secretary of State Clinton's efforts to assure Internet freedom. If anything, Verveer was building on the Secretary of State's own recognition in her February speech on Internet Freedom that we live in a complicated world where constant vigilance is required against those who would misuse the Internet.
As the Secretary of State warned: "Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights." In a similar tone as Verveer, she drew a distinction between American commitment to "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," and the possibility that the Internet "can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and human rights."
It's hard to see a conflict between the Secretary of State and her Assistant Secretary. Perhaps Mr. Feld has been so blinded by his own ardent passion for net neutrality that he can't countenance a reality check or acknowledge that government regulation is a blunt instrument that can have some unintended consequences or be misused by those who don't share his principled beliefs.
It isn't hard to imagine that the Chinese government, which is battling Google over censorship issues and seems to countenance Internet spying, pointing to mild Internet regulations in the United States as justification for heavy-handed intervention of its own.
There's also quite a contrast for President Obama's support for a form of net neutrality designed to protect the right of individuals to roam the Internet freely and use it for a free exchange of ideas, and the sort of heavy-handed government intervention favored by some of Mr. Feld's allies in the net neutrality movement.
As an example, Free Press co-founder and Chairman Robert McChesney has defended Venezuelan President Chavez's decision to shut down opposition television station RCTV with the observation that "If RCTV were broadcasting in the United States, its license would have been revoked years ago. In fact its owners would likely have been tried for criminal offenses, including treason." Ironically, just this week Chavez called for Internet controls by his government, complaining that social sites like Twitter and Facebook are tools of his political foes, and thus must be regulated.
Perhaps Mr. Feld should spend some time thinking about the views of his allies instead of trying to conjure up non-existent gaps between Phil Verveer and his bosses in the Obama administration
Which is not to say that net neutrality is good policy or bad policy for the United States, but just to note as Verveer did that it comes with certain strings attached.
Instead of criticism, we ought to be dishing thanks to Mr. Verveer for speaking the truth plainly and realistically about how domestic policy decisions can have implications for our diplomatic dealings around the world.
(Michael Turk is an unpaid Director of Digital Society, a pro-culture, pro-commerce think tank partially funded by Arts & Labs -- a partnership between business and creative organizations promoting safe, fast, legal and affordable content. Turk is also a partner in CRAFT | Media / Digital, a communications consulting company.)