Friday, December 24, 2010

Expansion of government regulation over internet raises censorship, privacy concerns

In a further victory for the Obama Administration's long term goal of more government oversight over the internet, the Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to impose regulatory control over the sprawling worldwide communication network begun by the Department of defense with a 3-2 party line decision in order to impose so called "net neutrality" rules.

In spite of the administration's assurances that "net neutrality" would preserve the free exchange of ideas and vibrant competition that have become the hallmark of this critical "information superhighway" on which millions of individuals and untold organizations have come to depend for everything from intra-company communication to comparison shopping to political debate and discourse, critics worried that the action might hamper one of the country's few bastions of consistent economic growth at a time when the country can least afford it and set alarm bells ringing for many civil libertarians who feel the very nature of the internet as a free and unbridled medium for exchange of ideas could be at risk. 

Indeed, at least for those civil libertarians among us concerned about individual privacy and civil liberties who choose to trust their own judgment and that of the American people rather than bureaucrats in Washington this is just one more step along the road to surfdom and the eventual complete tracking and control by the government of every single aspect of our lives, including everything we say and do online.

Admittedly, the line is not always clear between sound policy in order to advance legitimate public interests and an overarching federal government that seemingly knows no bounds in its efforts to "save us from ourselves."

But coming on the heels of a seeming abandonment by the new FCC Chief of rules that just a few months ago were being considered that would have allowed individuals to "opt out" of invasive marketing by companies that track and compile the browsing habits of internet users without their explicit consent it is indeed worrisome to see the present Administration's FCC appointees so quickly turn in a direction so starkly in contrast to Congress' and the Bush Administration's previously settled hands-off policy perhaps best exemplified in the adage "if it aint broke don't fix it."

From a legal perspective, undergirding this change is the move from the Bush Administration's classification of the internet as "information services" to the Obama administration's view of internet service providers as synonymous with turn-of-the-century telephone companies and which, at least in their view, should be regulated in much the same way.

The problem with that of course is regulation of the telephone industry arose at a time when the internet, blackberries, and cell phones were non-existent (except perhaps in the minds of science fiction writers!), and in an age in which the monopolization of power in just one or a very few telephone companies was the rule rather than the exception, (does the name "Ma Bell" or the old "American Telephone and Telegraph" ring any bells? pun intended!).  Such a "one size fits all" regulatory regime may have been justified when a cohesive set of rules, applicable to just one or two telephone companies, were employed to correct a tendency away from competition and consumer choice.

Not so today when there is healthy competition in the ISP sphere and literally hundreds of choices available to consumers, with more arising everyday.  Oh, sure, there are the "big three," the new ATT, Verizon, and Sprint, but it is the very level of (low) regulation and open nature of the internet which today drives innovation and consumer choice.  Seriously, does anyone really believe that if the government had imposed restrictions and regulation on the nascent internet industry when it was just getting started we would have anything like what we have today in the choices of broad band, cell, dial up, and wireless providers?

In just the last couple years we have witnessed a veritable explosion in increased access to the internet among all socio-economic classes, (witness public library internet access and once paid but now free wireless "hotspots" in numerous Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores, and even McDonalds!)

And while it is plausible that it is the government's interest in such matters is contained to merely taxing what has become a huge source of economic activity, (as if that weren't bad enough!) it is the alternative explanation and the impact upon every individual's privacy that government regulation could effect upon freedom of speech that is most troublesome  (and if you don't think any modern government could or would attempt to "control" the internet to stifle dissent and/or harass and track political "outsiders" who don't "toe the party line" just look at China).

True, China is a communist country and we have a Constitution which has guaranteed our basic freedoms, including the right to freedom of speech, for over two hundred years.  But as any historian can tell you, equally free and strong civilizations have fallen; indeed, as another has said, "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

Moreover, the "net neutrality" regulations are not the only threat on the horizon of free speech.   Next time I will go into more detail on other policies and potential threats that have the ability to be abused and/or utilized to "chill" free speech and even possibly intimidate and/or "track" people whose political views may not always be the most popular with the powers that be.  I will tell you all about it the next post.  jp

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