Operative B doesn’t have too many bad ideas, but this is a doozy. Don’t get Ghettoputer started on freedom of speech, and don’t get GorT going on the technical aspects of this. Actually, that’s probably why B wrote to the Czar on this.
|Oh Fearsome One!
This lowly minion wishes to approach your throne (on this still threadbare carpet) and beg to speak the subject of government regulation—or lack of regulation—on the Internet.
Throughout American history, individuals have formed companies that created products used by “the masses.” Some of those products became so widely used that they became core to the American lifestyle: electric lighting, telephone, and water systems come immediately to mind.
Other products became widely used as well: gasoline and food production come to mind as well.
But communication products—devices and systems that have a direct effect on society and play a part in the political life of America, have always been treated differently.
Since radio, television, and other forms of telephony play a part in spreading information, and since the spread of information comes under the 1st Amendment, companies that are directly responsible for “speech that influences” have come under regulation to ensure fairness (although it doesn’t always work that way).
To regulate electronic forms of information dissemination, the Federal Communications Commission was formed. It has sometimes been influenced in how it regulates influence, but has (for the most part) managed to find a balance between allowing the free exercise of speech while enforcing some rules to keep the speech from becoming too offensive (e.g. the regulations against profanity).
A new form of information dissemination has spread over the past several years via a communication medium that was never considered at the time the FCC was instituted: the Internet. Originally created for military use, and designed to withstand both widespread natural disasters and nuclear war, the Internet has become indispensable as the primary method for information flow. The Internet has the reach and the influence that radio had in then 1930s and TV had in the 1960s.
But there is no regulation on the Internet. The FCC’s attempt at “net neutrality” was based on cost of access, not content.
It is time for the FCC to begin to look at regulating content on the Internet. It is time for the FCC to examine whether companies like Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, and other “providers” are using their power to decide who has “access” to the internet, and whether that “access” is being affected by those companies—and whether decisions on “access” are based entirely on “content”.
When Google or Facebook, which have become so powerful as to be considered utilities, decide which content they will allow and which they will deny, they enter the realm of “control over political discussion”. And by entering this realm and deciding which information they will—and won’t—disseminate, they can control the political process.
It is time for the FCC to step in and determine how the Internet should be regulated, just as they stepped in to determine how the original Bell Telephone needed to be regulated and how radio and TV were regulated.
Google and Facebook are not public utilities. They are privately owned, but they need to be declared “common carriers” to force them to stop making decisions about who uses their services and how they make their information available.
Does this mean that ISIS may have a free hand on Facebook? Yes… and no. Facebook may not like what ISIS posts, but it should not be in the business of blocking it. It’s the same with neo-Nazis and alt-right extremists. And it is the same with antiFA, BLM, BAMN, and other alt-left extremists. Facebook should remain neutral on content—but is free to contact authorities when it feels that content presents an immediate danger to others.
And it is the same with Facebook and “fake news”: Facebook should not be in the business of deciding which news is “fake” and which news is “real.” It has become a “common carrier”, and needs to stop regulating what is seen on its network.
Yes, it sucks to build a tool that is adopted by thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions around the world—and then be told that “you have too much influence to be allowed to continue to operate according to your personal agenda.” But that’s where we are today: hundreds of millions of people around the world getting their information “filtered” through the minds of a select few who determine “what’s best” for their subscribers.
The time has come for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other highly-influential organizations to be told that they need to get out of the “regulating and choosing content” business. They have become too big and too influential, and need to be regulated as “utilities”.
Sometimes there is a place for government. And when it comes to ensuring that all people have the same right to have their political speech be heard, the 1st Amendment must be the guiding principle. In this country, your right to free speech must be protected. And when companies or city governments trample on those rights (are you listening, Berkeley?) it is time for the federal government to step in and restore those rights.
I beg your indulgence for going on so long, and plead for your patience—and ask that you not kick me into the moat for my thoughts.
The Czar utterly disagrees, and not just on libertarian principles, but on basic economic ones as well.
Let’s talk a bit about what Net Neutrality is, and just as integrally, what it isn’t. Like many things produced by the Federal government, its stated purpose is not always aligned as its intended purpose. On the face of it, Net Neutrality is a kind-of guarantee that an internet provider will not offer faster connection speeds to its advertisers, or—more curiously—offer slower service to websites featuring content with which the provider disagrees. This sounds great, and indeed people on both sides of the political spectrum applauded this idea; the Czar opposes it because of the sole arbiter in making that assessment—the Federal government, who does not historically offer good services in these matters.
Here’s the thing: you can’t hide very much on the internet for very long. The whole Net Neutrality thing started up because the telecom giants AT&T and Verizon were terrified that their slow, clunky, telephone dial-up connections would be killed by the faster, sleeker broadband providers like Comcast. Yes, that’s right—it was the dinosaurs complaining about the faster mammals, and what could the government do to help? Over time, the Net Neutrality argument shifted into content, particulary a decade later when Comcast was accused of slowing down user connections to BitTorrent. Comcast’s defense was that BitTorrent’s chatty traffic was killing Comcast’s network performance. The public called upon—guess who—the government to stop this sort of bad behavior. Interestingly, that particular problem was not solved by government but by a cooperative agreement between Comcast and BitTorrent, who did what free, capitalist companies are supposed to do: negotiate with each other and hammer out an agreement.
Too late: government got involed. The FCC decided that what Comcast did was unlawful, despite the subsequently mutual agreement, and forced Comcast to break the agreement and adopt a government-mandated solution which impaired traffic again. Comcast sued, successfully, to get the BitTorrent agreement back in place—but this shows what a great freaking job the government does at handling technology competition.
It was ulimately President Obama who re-framed the Net Neutrality argument by suggesting the internet is a utility and must therefore be regulated like one. And this, the Czar opposes.
The internet is not a utility: the argument that the government provides it as a service falls flat, as well: if you turned off every single piece of government hardware on the internet, it would still exist, independently. All the government did was establish TCP/IP as its routing structure, and the rest of humanity took it from there.
A utility, as the Czar sees it, is a service provision that cannot be readily controlled by the consumer. The Czar cannot call up a different gas company and have his dacha heated by someone else’s gas. He cannot call up his electric company and be connected to someone else’s grid. The Czar’s water comes solely from Lake Michigan, and his sewers go to one and only one treatment plant. The Czar is powerless to change that, unless he forfeits the entire service: we could buy our rent our own tank, put up some windmills, dig a well, and use a private septic tank. But he can’t swap out his provider.
The internet is something he can control, though. If the Czar dislikes Comcast, he can switch to any number of service providers. Some will charge more, some will charge less. Some will offer more features, some will offer less. The Czar can do the same for his television service, now.
The idea that communications is a utility, of course, goes back to the Ma Bell days. Your telephone connection, historically, was absolutely a utility: you had one carrier, and in many places, your community shared the same line. Although this theoretically ended in 1984, it really wasn’t until the late 1990s that you could, in practice, dump your carrier and go with someone else…or dump your landline entirely and go with cellular. Now, you don’t even need a phone: you can route your calls through the internet completely.
What regulation is required? If Operative B elects to go with an all-VOIP service, he doesn’t even pay for a phone call. There’s nothing to regulate, except that he might have trouble making a 911 call. That’s another matter for another day.
Regarding Google and Facebook, no, they’re not utilities, either, as Operative B acklowledges. But they, as private companies, aren’t required to adhere to any free speech rules. If you don’t like their policies, don’t use them. Confucius* (the Czar believes) prefers to use Bing. The Czar himself refuses to use Facebook. These companies are not monopolies, by any means—they simply offer a product that millions of people really like, and they are under no compulsion to restrict or allow speech of any kind. It’s up to them if they want to restrict or allow speech, not Congress. So the Czar suspects Operative B’s proposed regulations would not survive constitutional scrutiny—just as broadcast television no longer restricts content.**
The last thing you would want on social media, or communications access, or any form of free enterprise, is government regulation. If the government was obligated to regulate services and products used by hundreds of millions with the ability to control access to it, it would have done a better job with healthcare insurance. How’s that going?
*For those who came in late, Confucius is the Gormogons’ Œcumenical Volgi.
**It’s true. The major networks curtail sex, profanity, and violence—a smidge—during prime-time hours only because it’s better for ratings, not because the FCC still requires this. The networks believe—correctly—that parents and individuals need to decide for themselves what’s appropriate content. Same for the internet.