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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at the Internet Governance Forum USA 07/16/2015

Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
The Internet Governance Forum USA
Washington, D.C.
July 16, 2015

—As Prepared for Delivery—

Thank you, Shane, for the introduction. I also want to thank the U.S. IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Planning Committee for planning this event and George Washington University for hosting. I have enjoyed having the opportunity to speak at each of these IGF-USA events since they started back in 2009.

When I look at your agenda for the day, much of it mirrors our agenda at NTIA. Rather than devoting my remarks to one specific issue, I will use my time this morning to take stock of the multistakeholder process as a tool for addressing the key issues that exist in the Internet policy space and to reaffirm our strong support for the model in the work we do.

An appropriate starting point for these remarks is the ongoing work of the global Internet community to develop the plan to transition NTIA’s stewardship role with respect to the Internet Domain Name System.

In a testament to the success of the multistakeholder model, technical experts and representatives of private industry, academia, civil society and governments are working around-the-clock to complete a transition proposal that meets the criteria we have outlined.  This work is tiring; sometimes contentious; perhaps exasperating. No doubt, this is not an easy task. But it is an important one, and I greatly appreciate the effort and level of commitment demonstrated by all the participants in this process.  Most importantly, it is working and I am confident it will be successful.

The effort is a compelling demonstration that bringing together all stakeholders, including businesses, technical experts, civil society and government, to resolve issues on a consensus basis is the best way to set the future direction of the Internet. Over the past 20 years, the Internet has flourished.  It has driven economic growth, innovation and free expression around the globe. And a big part of its success can be attributed to this multistakeholder approach to resolving technical and policy challenges. 

It is not hard to understand why this has been the case.  Like the Internet itself, the multistakeholder model is characterized by its open participation and decentralized processes. The Internet thrives only through the cooperation of many different parties.  The multistakeholder model reflects this fact by enabling a diversity of stakeholders to participate, fostering a diversity of opinions and ideas. The result is more creative problem solving. It is a nimble, flexible approach, much better suited to rapidly changing technologies, business practices, and markets than traditional regulatory or legislative models.  

This is not to say that multistakeholder processes are easy.  They can be chaotic and they do require a serious commitment of time and energy from participants.  But they have a record of success.  The Internet works seamlessly today because a cadre of technologists, policy wonks and others through such groups as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) put their heads together to standardize voluntary programming languages, security protocols, and other web technologies. 

Stakeholders continue to update these standards on an ongoing basis.  If these technological challenges had been handed off to the typical Washington regulatory or legislative processes to resolve, we might still be waiting for a resolution. Worse, we might have technical protocols that are hopelessly out of date, hamstringing technologists and users from creating the robust, evolving Internet we enjoy today.  One shudders to imagine an HTML standard drafted by a government committee. 

And of course we have seen the model work in the context of ICANN, where the Internet community has come together to resolve technical and policy issues related to the Internet Domain Name System for nearly 17 years. This system ensures that users are able to easily access content by typing in simple names like  rather than confusing numeric addresses.

So we know this model can work. That’s why we continue to embrace it as the best tool to meet our mission at NTIA to preserve and protect the Internet as a platform for economic growth, innovation, and the free flow of information.  This mission places us front and center at every major Internet policy debate today – privacy, Internet governance, cybersecurity and more.  We are committed to making progress where we can to ensure that our digital economy continues to grow and thrive. But we cannot do it by ourselves. We need you to come to the table, roll up your sleeves and work with us to find solutions to these complex issues. 

In the next several weeks, NTIA will be kicking off two new multistakeholder processes. The first will tackle issues related to privacy, transparency and accountability regarding unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  Our first meeting is scheduled for August 3.

The second new process will focus on cybersecurity vulnerability disclosures and will get underway in September. We will also be reconvening the facial recognition privacy multistakeholder process on July 28. In all three instances, we selected the topics after soliciting broad input from the community.  In any multistakeholder process, the community must decide when a topic is ripe for discussion and possible consensus in order for it to be successful.

We are putting our time and resources in the multistakeholder process because we know it can help build trust in the digital ecosystem. For the sustainability and continued growth of the Internet, it is imperative that we preserve the trust of all actors on the Internet. The multistakeholder process has the ability to produce – in a timely way – meaningful guideposts for industry and consumers in this rapidly evolving technological environment.   That cannot be said for the legislative or regulatory processes in Washington.

As we continue to engage the community in these multistakeholder efforts, we are constantly reassessing how we employ the process. We welcome the community’s ongoing feedback on how to improve our processes. That’s part of the beauty of the model – it’s adaptable and flexible in a way that regulatory approaches could never be.

We are particularly concerned about identifying and reducing the barriers to participation in these processes.  For example, we have heard concerns about the time it takes to reach consensus.  I grant you that reaching consensus on challenging policy issues does not happen overnight.  In our first multistakeholder process on privacy, it took over one year to reach consensus on a code of conduct aimed at improving disclosures on mobile devices.  But today, enhanced privacy notices based on the code are now live in apps used by 200 million consumers and the numbers are growing.  

A one-year process to make substantial progress on a policy issue impacting millions of consumers – that’s lightning speed in Washington. Complex policy issues typically take years to make their way through the regulatory and legislative morass of Washington. Most efforts end in failure. The few that do reach a conclusion inevitably solve a problem that no longer exists or has been overtaken by newer issues that themselves need to be addressed. 

Washington policymakers have struggled mightily to update laws impacting core technology policy issues – even when nearly everyone agrees updates are desperately needed.  For example, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was enacted in 1986 – almost 30 years ago.  It governs a range of key issues regarding electronic communications, but it has not been significantly revised since its enactment.  ECPA has created frustrations for law enforcement, judges and advocates for decades.  All key stakeholders agree that the law should be updated to take account of developments -- like the development of powerful mobile devices, widespread email use, and cloud computing – that were unforeseen in the mid-80s and are handled clumsily by ECPA.  Experts have called for Congress to amend ECPA to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded to data in the physical world.  Proposal after proposal has been floated over the years.  Despite the best of intentions, lawmakers have not been able to break the logjam and update a law that is sorely in need of revision.

So in evaluating the time it takes to reach consensus in a multistakeholder process, consider the alternatives.  They are no faster.

Some stakeholders have also shared their concerns that multistakeholder processes are too resource-intensive.  I understand that participants have to pick and choose their battles. Meetings can be lengthy. And some participants have spent countless hours working through drafts of documents. We want to encourage broad participation in the three multistakeholder efforts that will be proceeding on parallel tracks this summer.  We suggest to those companies and organizations that find it hard to attend all of these events to find a way to pool resources with other like-minded organizations to lighten the load of direct participation.  

But, as with the concern about the time the process takes, some of the concerns may simply reflect that it takes time to acclimate to this new style of dealing with policy issues.  Our processes are still less burdensome than working through regulatory proceedings or preparing for litigation. Every important proceeding at the FCC attracts thousands of pages of comments, which then require hundreds of hours for participants to read and digest and prepare their own filings. But people are used to that process and perhaps do not question it the same way as they might a new and less familiar process. 

So in evaluating the resources it takes to reach consensus in a multistakeholder process, consider the alternatives.  They are no less burdensome.

Nonetheless, we want to improve our process.  If the community feels our process takes too long and uses too many resources, perhaps we should ask ourselves, are we setting the bar too high for consensus agreement?  At the outset of each process, we need a shared understanding of consensus. Should the stakeholder community consider whether “rough consensus” is good enough in some instances?  When stakeholders reach a point of exhaustion – where they have come to a place that the output could be operationalized in the marketplace, and later improved upon – it could be time to press pause and move forward. Stakeholders in IETF often commit themselves to “rough consensus and running code” – there could be a lesson there for our stakeholder engagements.  At the end of the day, we leave it up to the community to decide when the work is done and we look forward to your input on that issue as our multistakeholder work starts up or resumes this month.

The last aspect of the multistakeholder process I will address is also perhaps the toughest.  For these efforts to succeed, we need players to come to the table with open minds, committed to collaborating fully in the process.  Everyone needs to be committed to reaching a consensus outcome and be willing to compromise to achieve that goal. 

The strategy of some participants in legislative and regulatory proceedings may be simply to preserve the status quo – that approach will not work in a multistakeholder process.  Moreover, I suggest to you that a strategy of accepting the status quo as an outcome of the discussions on the Internet policy issues we face today is not a strategy for success for your company or organization. 

Just as the Internet economy is constantly evolving and disrupting existing business models, our policy responses also need to evolve.  We cannot leave issues untended – all that will do is slow down innovation on the Internet and perhaps leave our businesses at a disadvantage in the global marketplace.  Alan Deutschman’s business adage, “Change or Die,” applies just as aptly to Internet policy debates as it does to companies trapped in business models that are rapidly becoming obsolete. 

Where does this discussion leave us? We have to ask ourselves whether we are better off playing the legislative and regulatory waiting game where progress perhaps never occurs.  Or are we better off taking up these issues in discussions where we might reach consensus on some critical issues?  Are we better off with laws and regulations that are obsolete when they are passed, or even a patchwork quilt of state rules and regulations, leaving millions of consumers subject to different protections depending on where they reside? Or are we better off with a process that is flexible and allows businesses to adjust in response to the rapid changes in their environments?  I think the answers are clear. 

So I encourage everyone who works on Internet policy issues to join in our multistakeholder processes.  And when discussions get tough – as they inevitably do – double down to work past disagreements.  Do not sit on the sidelines – observing but not participating in discussions. Multistakeholder processes work best when a broad range of stakeholders with differing viewpoints fully participate. Most importantly, stay in the room.

I realize these multistakeholder processes collide with the culture of Washington. It is more comfortable for companies to hire a team of lobbyists to work the regulatory agencies, lobby the Hill, and hire litigation specialists to represent their interests. It is how things have been done in this town for decades.

But we’re talking about the Internet here.  The Internet has disrupted many entrenched industries from newspapers to travel to taxicabs. Perhaps it’s time for some Internet thinking by businesses to disrupt how business is done in Washington. Imagine what could be accomplished with the brightest technologists, policy makers and academics who come together in good faith to debate and reach consensus on the solutions for our most important policy challenges in the Internet age. That’s the promise of the multistakeholder model.

Come join us.  And thank you for listening.