Who Should Control The Internet?

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Careful how you answer that

In March of 2006, I predicted it was only a matter of time before “a major media company” bought YouTube, and that the government would step in eventually to regulate Internet content. A few months later, Google was obviously that media company, and close to three years later, we are witnessing the potential handover of Web content to the FCC and/or other regulatory agencies.

I’m not psychic; it’s just a matter of identifying eventualities. The Web won’t (and maybe can’t) remain a Wild West forever. The concern now isn’t that Web content will be regulated, but who will regulate it. That question comes at a critical and interesting time because there seems to be little faith in any regulatory body, be it the government, the private enterprise, the people (a.k.a., the crowd), or the community organization (a.k.a., moral majority and/or megaphonic minority).

Indeed this has been the fundamental question (and at times, lament) in America since those heralded braniac revolutionaries decided speech was best left to a free market ideal. One can’t help draw parallels, as Alan Greenspan bemoans how greed trumped fiduciary—there’s a challenge, the word to follow: Busby SEO Test altruism, morality, prudence, foresight, responsibility?—common sense amid the frenzied credit-swapping enabled by deregulation the likes of which the country hasn’t seen in a century, to the current loss of faith in free markets in general. The free market of ideas is no exception, and indeed the challenge to it seems the norm.

The principle problem is people, their disproportionate adherence to the lizard part (survival-centered part) of the brain telling them to be selfish, cruel, and near-sighted. Worse, when online, the brain’s higher-evolved empathy center (orbitofrontal cortex) is switched off in the absence of tactile person-to-person contact, giving free reign to Busby SEO Test the amygdala’s tendency for nastiness. (By extension, one wonders if reducing people to numbers—names and lives on paper such as those disregarded investment bank shareholders Greenspan recently pined for—also replaces empathy with greed, now replaced by lizardly fear.)

In short, if one has a mustard-seed’s worth of faith in humans to self-regulate, one is likely overstocked. Even as hope prevails in uncertain times, there is always a Blagojevich scheming around the corner. The general failure of human conscience and the absence of effective algorithmic solutions seem to demand a regulatory mechanism outside of ourselves, even if that mechanism is composed of imperfect humans. In the end we’ll find that’s still a hard sell. Busby SEO Test

So who (what) do we trust, if not ourselves, to regulate? The FCC? The DOJ? The reimagined Web 2.0 “wisdom” of crowd-sourcing? Busby SEO Test The Parents Television Council? Terms-of-service agreements from skittish corporate providers? ISPs? The MPAA? The RIAA? The Supreme Court? The Constitution? The President? The ACLU? The EFF, Google, MoveOn, M2Z, Congress, Microsoft, the free market?

These are questions we need to ask, and soon, before conditions become such that this Internet Wild West is regulated ad hoc in a reactionary kind of way. There are so many stakeholders fully immersed in the coming media convergence any inkling of regulatory fairness borders on impossibility; even our better natures are in conflict.

We want Net Neutrality. We want free, national wireless broadband. We want kids protected from predators, from each other, and from porn. We want free speech and free access, but the current government doesn’t seem keen on giving both, that first one especially.

The real pain comes, though, when addressing the problem of who should be in control of all this. If we can’t self-regulate (free-market-like), and it seems obvious we can’t stop being smutty, greedy, and generally violent in verbal and nonverbal ways, and we can’t trust the mob (is that still true after Web 2.0?), then do we turn to the government, corporations, or the courts?

The FCC is mulling, with mixed signals from Congress and support from the upcoming administration, pushing through free national wireless broadband on spectrum set aside for that purpose with the vague caveat that the network filters out pornography/obscene content. The desired end is a good one; more people have access regardless of socioeconomic factors and geography and no one is exposed to smut on the government’s watch.

The proposal carries with it the usual content regulation pitfall, which is to leave it up to the FCC to decide that which is too indecent for the public at large, a role the current, more puritanical FCC has filled poorly, to the point that it is in danger of losing authority over content coming across one-way communication systems (television and radio). Constitutionally, the proposal is shaky because it involves government regulation of speech/expression.

The constitutional workaround might be to contract out the operation of the free network to a company chomping at the bit to provide it, M2Z, in which case the role of the FCC is similar to the role it plays with broadcasters, indirect monitoring of speech/expression regulation when over public airwaves. But the end effect is precarious because it sets a precedent for an internet service provider to block undesirable content from end users, which is the main tenet against which Net Neutrality supporters push. If M2Z is allowed to discriminate based on content, what defense would the public have against AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast doing the same?

The Parents Television Council, the chief content gadfly directing the decency course of the current FCC chairman in regard to fleeting expletives on broadcast and efforts to regulate even cable content, has turned its attention to YouTube. In addition to video content, the PTC is concerned about material appearing in the comments below a video. The organization, which pressures the FCC, networks, and advertisers to rid the world of all smut, conducted its own study of content and commentary on YouTube:

  • Viewing 20 YouTube videos per “teen idol” search term produced a total of 422 instances of explicit content within the text commentary.
  • An average of 68% of those comments included profanity and 31% of the profanity was of the most offensive nature (i.e. “fuck,” “shit,” and “bitch”).

The PTC wants Google to do something about it, as well as bad influence in general. They should probably talk to every school, sports coach, and teen hangout proprietor in the world while they’re at it.

Meanwhile, as Facebook decides breast-feeding images are a violation of its terms of service, Kentucky is seizing gambling domains, and Missouri begins enforcing cyber-bullying laws aimed at curbing online harassment like that which led to the infamous conviction of Lori Drew. Illinois is mulling similar legislation, which seems like a trend destined to reach federal levels. Once again, panels of humans decide what is and what isn’t harassment or detrimental bullying.

The forecast for Net Neutrality, then, looks somewhat bleak. If the actual First Amendment is ignored in the form of content regulation, then the proposed and controversial First Amendment of the Internet seems doomed under the weight of overlapping government, organizational, and corporate agendas. Corporations either abuse or capitulate, organizations suffer from myopia and runaway zeal, and government tends to overcorrect for everything.

It seems inevitable, though, that this vastly imperfect and drawback-compounding troika will run the Internet future, much like in the history of other media. And there’s the rub: the chaos of free media is accepted as the powerful boon to overall freedom, warts and all, or usurpers reign in that power for themselves and true freedom (and knowledge) is either obliterated or shelved for the elite.

What you have instead is not the myriad multitudes of individual problems and abuses present within single humans, but the compounded and potentially devastating problems and abuses of groups of allied humans. The former is democracy, the latter is oligarchy.

That is to say, if humans can’t be trusted, then groups of humans even less so. This isn’t new. Nietzsche said, to paraphrase, madness is rare in individuals but in groups it is the norm.

With that in mind, we human Americans, as a group, should adhere to the madness of those braniac revolutionaries who felt media and speech should remain chaotically, individually lawless.

Free broadband is a good idea. Free broadband with groups of humans arbitrarily deciding what is decent or acceptable is not a good idea. Net Neutrality is a good idea as it mirrors the original philosophy that government exists solely to protect the people, not from content, but from tyranny. But we can’t have the government (or other groups) undermining that principle by setting up its own content-regulated network, or allowing other groups of humans to do so.

In the end, we are left with the need to introduce Net Neutrality laws to protect the people’s unfettered access to the Internet, but leave the freedom to filter to those humans lacking in general self-regulation to begin with. It’s the American way.

Who should control the Internet, then? Nobody.

Alas, certain groups may find this too dangerous…

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