This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology

The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

Representative Timothy Bishop, New York State–1 (D) and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, writes:

The Internet is one of the most influential innovations of the last 50 years. It has connected the world in a way no other technology has before it, and it continues to expand access to education and broad access to the international marketplace for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

I strongly support a free and open Internet, as well as strong cybersecurity policies to prevent inappropriate access to sensitive information. With increased access to information, robust intellectual property policies must also keep up with the World Wide Web, and I support efforts to combat online piracy.

Representative John Boehner, Ohio–8 (R) and speaker of the House, declined to respond to the eight science questions we asked. As the House considered four cybersecurity bills, that followed recommendations from the House GOP's Cybersecurity Task Force, Representative Boehner released a joint statement on April 20, 2012:

Cybersecurity attacks are a direct threat to our economy and job creation, as well as our national security. The task force made thoughtful and substantive recommendations, and I’m pleased that our chairmen have worked with our members to move these common-sense, bipartisan bills through their committees through regular order.

The representative opposes "harmful regulations" of the Internet, according to a release dated May 6, 2010:

Calling it a “government takeover of the Internet,” Congressman John Boehner (R-West Chester) blasted the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new plan to impose job-killing “net neutrality” regulations that will undermine our economy and the success of Internet-related American employers. Boehner released the following statement: “Today’s FCC announcement amounts to a government takeover of the Internet, and yet another government takeover of a large portion of the private sector by the Obama administration. Under this job-killing big government scheme, the Obama administration is seeking to expand the power of the federal government.

"The success of the Internet is a perfect example of what happens when entrepreneurship and innovation are allowed to flourish, but today’s decision will undermine its success and hurt our economy. The American people are asking ‘Where are the jobs?’ They aren’t asking for yet another government takeover that imposes new job-killing federal regulations and puts bureaucrats in charge of the Internet. Congress should listen to the American people and act to reverse this unnecessary federal government power grab.”

NOTE: Last October, Boehner and Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) sent a letter to President Obama saying: “We all share the common goal of restoring America’s economic vitality. The FCC should not undermine that goal by imposing harmful regulations that will delay economic recovery and deprive Americans of faster, more sophisticated broadband services.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, California (D) and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, writes:

The Internet is playing an ever-increasing role in providing an efficient, democratic venue to share information and ideas in our increasingly interconnected world. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have witnessed firsthand the importance of the Internet in closed societies. We need look no further than recent political revolutions in the Middle East to understand the transformative role that online communication plays, both in terms of organization and dissemination of alternative ideas. The Internet is also invaluable within our own borders as a means of spreading information and facilitating collaboration. I am especially proud to represent Silicon Valley, which continues to push the online envelope and continually redefines how the Internet affects billions of lives.

Representative Ralph Hall, Texas–4 (R) and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, writes:

The Internet is an incredible engine of economic growth, innovation, and job creation, and accessibility to this important tool of communication and commerce has become integral to the freedom and prosperity of the United States. I support preservation of the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists. Centralized control of the Internet inhibits the organic growth and innovation this domain has historically enjoyed. Government has a responsibility to ensure that there are no barriers to legally-conducted investment and innovation, and to avoid unnecessary interference into the digital marketplace.

I also believe it is essential that we continue to research and develop ways to detect, prevent, resist, respond to, and recover from actions that compromise or threaten to compromise the integrity of the Internet. Strengthening the nation's cybersecurity ensures that we protect American consumers and businesses, thus safeguarding American innovation and competitiveness utilizing the Internet.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa (D) and chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, writes:

One of the tremendous strengths of the Internet is that is open and free nature encourages innovation and the proliferation of ideas, information, and commerce. Indeed, the innovations spawned by the Internet have revolutionized the way the world does business, dramatically increasing productivity and creating untold millions of jobs.

As a general matter, I believe that government regulation of the Internet has the potential to stifle the very characteristics that have made the Internet such a tremendous benefit to our country and to our economy.

At the same time, I am concerned that, in recent years, some network providers have sought to limit or curtail the content of what viewers can access over their networks. While these practices are often legitimate efforts to manage congestion, some providers have gone too far by using unreasonable management practices to limit customer's access to lawful content. Such actions make it more difficult for customers to have readily available access to unfiltered information and services, the hallmark of the Internet. In such circumstances, I do support government efforts to protect a free and open Internet.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky (R) and Senate minority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. We have not found public statements in which he addresses the government's role in regulating the Internet as of press time.

Representative John Mica, Florida–7 (R) and chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, writes:

The government should not manage the Internet and should resist any burdensome regulations, except for the monitoring for explicitly illegal material. The Federal Government should ensure cybersecurity.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, California–8 (D) and House minority leader, writes:

No longer are we in a world where we must only listen to what others say. We can now create our own content and share it with audiences large and small, so we should worry about anyone who aims to stand in the way of the transmission of free speech -- just as we would worry about someone who would try to block you from telephoning a friend, or using a fax machine to send them a document. That is why I stand with the President and support open Internet protections at the FCC, which empower consumers to enjoy the Internet content of their choice on the devices of their choice.

More airwaves must be dedicated to wireless services, but as reallocate them from other, older uses, we must also ensure spectrum for wireless innovation, like Wi-Fi, and promote spectrum sharing between users. Wi-Fi has been beneficial to consumers, carriers and businesses big and small. The next generations of Wi-Fi won't need federal funding, but they will need government support.

Senator Harry Reid, Nevada (D) and Senate majority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. His Website states his stance on cybersecurity and expanding broadband access:

Cyber Security. With our economic, military, energy, and transportation infrastructure increasingly becoming “wired,” our nation faces no greater threat in the 21st Century than a major cyber attack. Las Vegas sits on top of one of the largest intersections of fiber-optic networks in the world. A disruption to these networks caused by a major cyber attack could take down the networks of Nevada’s businesses, cause power outages, interrupt financial transactions, and even cause major infrastructure to fail. While the United States has been the world’s leading innovator in developing information technology, our defenses have not kept pace.

That is why I have led a broad Senate effort to pass comprehensive legislation to enhance our nation’s cyber security and give our government the tools it needs to prevent, deter, and respond to cyber attacks. Earlier this year, I joined the chairmen of 7 key committees in introducing the Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011, which lays out a roadmap to improving our nation’s defenses in cyberspace. Building on this effort, I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass comprehensive cyber security legislation this Congress.

Expanding Broadband Access. Many areas, particularly rural and low-income communities, continue to lack access to broadband service. It is critical that Nevada's rural areas benefit from the same technological advances that other parts of the country have enjoyed. Significant improvements have been made for providing access to all areas of the country, but more must be done. I led passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act), which provided a total of $7.2 billion for broadband expansion, consisting of $4.7 billion for a newly established Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and $2.5 billion for existing Department of Agriculture broadband programs. These funds will lay the groundwork for a national broadband policy that will seek to reduce or eliminate the "digital divide."

We must also ensure that the next generation is ready to meet the challenges of a global high technology economy. Students increasingly need computer skills to compete for jobs, but too often schools lack the access to technology or teachers lack the training to empower our students with this knowledge. That is why I am a strong supporter of the e-Rate program, which provides discounted Internet access for schools and libraries. This important program has helped improve academic achievement and continues to provide our schools and teachers with the resources to prepare our students for the global economy. In addition, the Recovery Act provided $650 million to expand technology in the classroom and help teachers better incorporate technology into the curriculum.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia (D) and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, writes:

The Internet is the key to our nation's growing digital economy. It has become the essential infrastructure of our day and is how we will grow our economy, expand businesses, foster innovation, increase access to education, improve healthcare, and even transform entertainment in the years to come.

Our country has a strong history of making sure that everyone has access to modern communications networks. In the past, the Federal government's efforts have been focused on working to ensure that all communities were connected to basic telephone service. Now, that the Internet plays such an integral role in our economy, having widespread access to high-speed broadband service will be essential for Americans to compete and to remain at the forefront of global innovation and commerce, especially in science and technology. As a result, the Federal government must work to ensure that every community has access to broadband. That is why I continue to support efforts to refocus the nation's universal service fund program to spur additional broadband deployment. These reforms will direct our resources to expanding Internet access, especially in unserved or underserved areas.

American innovation spurred by the Internet will only abide if we enforce a free and open Internet and ensure strong protections for privacy for persons using the Internet. The Federal government also must retain the ability to enforce key longstanding consumer protections over our new advanced communications networks. Many of the key laws governing our nation's telecommunications must be updated or clarified to reflect our new broadband-centric society, while still maintaining the core values and strong protections on which Americans have come to rely.

The Federal government will also need to review wireless technologies as more and more Americans access the Internet from mobile devices. Earlier this year, Congress passed a law I authored to free up a large amount of wireless spectrum for commercial broadband services. Spectrum is a natural resource that is the lifeblood of the explosive growth we have seen in wireless Internet access services. At the same time, we were able to use revenues from the auction of this spectrum to address a pressing national security and public safety need – the creation of a dedicated nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network for our first responders.

The Internet and what it has done for our country is unparalleled. But everything that we have accomplished in this Internet age is now vulnerable. When the control systems for our nation's most critical infrastructure—such as nuclear power plants, financial markets, a region's water supply, and hospital ventilation systems—were built, it was impossible to think they would some day be connected to the Internet. This critical infrastructure is now susceptible to cyber attacks from adversaries who can use the Internet to exploit vulnerabilities and cripple our economy or national security. As the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have worked with senators from both sides to increase our cybersecurity. Our efforts culminated in compromise legislation that would create an incentives-based, voluntary approach that encourages critical infrastructure companies to adopt practices to protect their systems. It would also allow the government and private sector to share threat and vulnerability information, while protecting privacy and civil liberties.

Unfortunately, the Republican leadership sided with beltway lobbyists and the U.S. Chamber of Congress over the professional advice of our nation's military and national security officials, and filibustered the Cybersecurity Act in July 2012. This is yet another example of Congress failing to act on an immediate threat—the FBI Director has said cyber threats will soon overtake conventional terrorism as the top national security concern of the FBI—with legislation that is the result of more than three years of hearings and meetings with the private sector and interest groups and addresses the many concerns of senators.

President Obama is now considering an executive order that would include most of our bill's provisions but would not be able to extend incentives such as liability protection to those companies that implement voluntary standards. I commend his decision to protect the nation from cyber attacks in the face of opposition and share his belief that even with an executive order, there will remain a need for legislation to fully address our cyber vulnerabilities. In other words, the Internet has raised us up in many ways, and it can also destroy us due to inexcusable inattention to cybersecurity.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Maryland–8 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on the Budget, writes:

The federal government has a limited but important role to play regarding the Internet. Because the 21st century economy is increasingly an information economy, I believe the federal government should pursue policies designed to eliminate the “digital divide” so that every American, every business, and every student has access to broadband. Additionally, for the Internet to continue to flourish, the federal government must strike an appropriate balance between the protection of intellectual property and fair use. Identity theft, fraud, and other criminal activity must be policed on the Internet as vigorously as it is offline. Finally, it has become increasingly clear that the federal government, in partnership with the private sector, must increase our vigilance in the area of cybersecurity and the protection of the nation's critical infrastructure.

Representative Henry Waxman, California–30 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, writes:

The federal government played an important role in the development of the Internet through funding by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and the National Science Foundation. To the extent possible, the federal government should continue to foster innovation by investing in research and development for the broadband ecosystem, including networks, equipment, and applications, so the United States can continue to be a leader in the global broadband economy.

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a set of sensible rules to preserve the open Internet by limiting the ability of broadband providers to act as Internet gatekeepers and decide what content their subscribers can access. By ensuring an open and transparent Internet, the federal government can provide the regulatory certainty necessary for investments in Internet infrastructure and the proliferation of e-commerce.

The U.S. government is now engaged in preliminary negotiations on a treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations, which will be taken up by the World Conference on International Telecommunications in December. The federal government has a crucial role to play in resisting efforts by some countries to encourage centralized control of the Internet. We need to ensure that the Internet remains a tool for the global dissemination of ideas, information, and commerce, without interference from any government.

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This article was originally published with the title "Why Science Is Better When It's Multinational."

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