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The Fight for Free Speech: Will We Be the Greatest Generation?

It will require a hands-on effort to keep our government's hands off the Internet — but it is a battle worth waging.

by
Steve Boriss

Bio

June 8, 2008 - 9:37 am

In many ways, there was more free speech before the printing press was invented than at any time since. Yes, we have more rights today to criticize government, but strangely, until recently technology has reduced each individual’s ability to effectively do it. The Internet offers the promise to advance free speech to unprecedented levels — but it won’t happen unless some of us shut up and the rest of us speak up.

Before the printing press was invented more than 500 years ago, we may not have been free peoples, but we did have relatively free speech as individuals. News was spread by word-of-mouth, and everyone could contribute to what was in the news. Even governments had to compete to be heard like everyone else, which they did for instance by hiring colorfully-garbed minstrels who sang their version of the news.

While the printing press may have been a great leap forward for the spread of information, it also represented two steps backwards for free speech. First, these large, hard-to-conceal machines now allowed governments to stifle criticism, by identifying those responsible for spreading information to the masses, and subjecting them to prior restraint, licensing, censorship, and punishment.

Second, the printing press pulled the masses out of the center arena, and transformed news from a participant sport to a spectator sport.

News no longer consisted of our individual voices, but those of elites often from remote places, or as NYU Professor Mitchell Stephens put it, “As the news we receive has begun to abandon our streets and communities in favor of momentarily more exciting locales across town or even overseas, our ability to participate in news has diminished … the bulk of humanity appears to have been pulled from the stage and seated in the balcony, our opportunities to make news on our own reduced to the occasional chance to wave should a television camera deign to pan our crowd.”

Technological advances in printing that came later further reduced the number of voices, and so were even harder on free speech. When the steam engine was harnessed to the printing press, newspapers suddenly engaged in stiff competition to bring their price per copy down to a penny. Only papers with the highest circulations could achieve this while paying for the expensive new equipment, putting many papers with alternative voices out of business. A similar phenomenon happened in the mid-20th century when the superior offset printing process was introduced.

The introduction of broadcasting not only eroded the number of voices, it actually reversed free speech, placing government back in control of news. European governments co-opted television and ran their own government-friendly broadcasts. In the U.S., government control of news became just as real, but it happened differently. Our government seized control of the broadcast spectrum, declaring frequencies a precious resource that must only be used by responsible corporate citizens. Accordingly, networks were required to reapply for licenses every few years, with renewals contingent upon satisfied politicians and their appointees.

Such was the unfortunate environment in which CBS founder William Paley invented network TV news — it would deliver programming that highlighted government issues, giving it the importance politicians felt it deserved. Paley thereby found a way to prove his network was a responsible corporate citizen, reducing the risk that the government would revoke his highly valuable license to broadcast his highly profitable entertainment programming. It was clear from the outset that CBS launched TV news for politicians and not profit. It would be another 20-30 years before the program made money, which news head Dick Salant famously announced to his staff as both good news and bad news.

Why bad news? Because after that, management would actually start caring whether his news department even made a profit. Now you know why broadcast news remains plain vanilla, establishment-friendly fare, a free-speech-embarrassment when compared to politically hotter, unregulated cable TV news.

With radio, the negative impact of government regulation on free speech is even more well-proven. In 1949, the FCC introduced the “Fairness Doctrine” that forced radio stations to air contrasting views whenever political opinions were expressed. To avoid trouble, radio stations avoided political talk. The extent to which this squelched free speech was not fully understood until the rule lapsed in 1987, immediately launching the new era of politically-charged talk radio.

Which brings us to the Internet — a new platform that allows everyone to have a voice — much like the old days when news was spread by word-of-mouth. To date, the Internet has remained blissfully free of government regulation. Its backbone rests in the private sector, it requires no licensing for use, and it is seemingly beyond the reach of those who would like government to regulate online behavior such as hate speech, obscenity, and too much control by a few corporations.

So everybody is thrilled that the Internet can deliver historically unprecedented levels of free speech, right?

If that’s true, you would never know it by following the news. In a recent editorial, the NY Times welcomed federal regulation of the Internet under the benign-sounding cause “net neutrality,” warning us that Internet service providers might suppress ideas they do not like. The Times ignores the fact that the First Amendment is designed to protect us against suppression of ideas by the government, not the private sector, which has neither the power nor the motive to suppress ideas.

Moreover, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal tells us, “Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.” It has not been given a chance to surface, much less an opportunity for the marketplace to fix this hypothetical problem. It is a weak reason to allow the irreversible step of government regulation.

Another party that is uncomfortable with free speech on the Internet is the Orwellianly-named group “Free Press.” They are pushing for the FCC to regulate the Internet similar to the way it regulates broadcast TV, calling for a national (read “government”) broadband policy to regulate price, speed, and availability. They also want the government to provide municipal broadband service to everybody, even though this model has already collapsed in the marketplace.

And of course, the U.N. and its many dictatorships is no fan of free speech on the Internet. Last November, the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held its second annual meeting with a not-so-hidden agenda for a U.N. takeover of the U.S.’ private sector control of core Internet systems.

It is a sad commentary that the loudest voice against Internet regulation so far seems to be a group called Hands Off the Internet. The group is made-up of special interests — whose special interests happen to coincide with what we should all be fighting for.

Steve Boriss teaches the class "The Future of News" at Washington University in St. Louis, blogs at at TheFutureofNews.com, and offers services through The Future of News, Inc. to help news organizations, corporations, and agencies succeed in the emerging news environment.
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