Just as WikiLeaks was dumping thousands of pages of classified documents into cyberspace, the Obama administration was announcing plans for a vote before the end of the year on how to “level the playing field” on the Internet with new government rules, restrictions and limits that would be monitored by federal agents.
But critics are alarmed that the foot-in-the-door possibility of government monitors on Internet traffic will lead to much more, including the potential of federal control over content and everything else on the Internet.
The WikiLeaks disclosure of government documents has highlighted the fact that the Internet gives people a wide range of resources – including those that are unauthorized and allegedly beyond government control, which is the reason there is worry over FCC chief Julius Genachowski’s proposal that would begin a “net neutrality” effort that would be managed by the government.
In short, critics are concerned the move is the beginning of a progression that could end with a “Fairness Doctrine” for the Internet. When that doctrine, which was abandoned during Reagan’s presidency as unconstitutional, was in effect for broadcast outlets, it sucked the life out of programming by demanding a “fair” handling of airtime, meaning right-leaning stations were required to “balance” their programs with left-leaning opinions, and vice versa.
Another concern is that “leveling” the playing field will be such a power grab by the federal government that small Internet service providers, bloggers, and others will get shunted aside to lower levels of service and higher costs.
Congressional Republicans say whatever rules may be coming – an FCC meeting is scheduled Dec. 21 and a vote could be held then – probably would be repealed – and quickly – once the GOP takes over the majority in the U.S. House starting in January.
House GOP Whip Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has expressed disappointment in Genachowski’s “sweeping” moves to create regulations for the Internet.
“Make no mistake, a thriving broadband industry will be a crucial piece of the private sector in the years ahead, and we must do everything we can to ensure long-term broadband investment and availability,” said Cantor in a statement obtained by WND.
“The companies that power our economy should not be forced to choose between bad and worse. Rest assured we intend to conduct rigorous oversight and explore all our legislative options to put things back on the proper track.”
Genachowski’s plans have been in development for a long time, and supporters say the goal is “net neutrality.”
Critics say they are anything but neutral – and deliberately will make it harder for smaller, innovative companies to compete with larger digital firms, giving larger firms preference in transmission of digital information over the start-ups.
“I circulated to my colleagues draft rules of the road to preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet. This framework, if adopted later this month, would advance a set of core goals,” said Genachowski, who was a campaign adviser to President Obama, during a speech at a forum in Washington, D.C., last week. “The proposed framework recognizes that broadband providers must have the ability and investment incentives to build out and run their networks. Universal high-speed Internet access is a vital national goal that will require very substantial private sector investment in our 21st century digital infrastructure.”
Critics charge that Genachowski’s “neutrality” is a euphemism and many fear that smaller ISPs, where conservative bloggers and other content providers are housed, will be placed on a second tier of access online, making their content harder to find if the proposed rules become federal regulations when the FCC commissioners vote.
While the proposal is moderate compared to earlier versions, which were said to be aimed at outright content restrictions online, it still is producing concern from those both on the left and right of the political spectrum.
“In trying to please everyone, the FCC proposal has the likelihood of pleasing no one,” said Professor Jonathan Askin, a law professor and communications law expert at the Brooklyn Law School, New York City.
Askin said he fears that the Congress and its “corporate benefactors” will not support net neutrality as an act of “political expedience.”
Askin reckons the federal government must shape “rules of the road” to prescribe Internet access, regulations to “fairly” balance the competing interests of consumers, broadband providers, and Internet content providers.
Another expert, Richard Neff, partner of the Neff Law Firm, Manhattan Beach, Calif., told WND the Obama administration probably is not trying completely to stamp out free speech.
But it is trying to control who has the loudest digital megaphone, so to speak.
“It’s not censorship,” said Neff. “Nobody is saying that small ISP content will not be carried or permitted on the Internet. It just may not be delivered as quickly.”
He warned the plan is so controversial, however, in Washington that even some of the FCC commissioners serving with Obama’s friend, Genachowski, may vote against it.
“Some of the commissioners are expected to oppose it,” he told WND. “It’s the pet project of Obama’s Harvard Law buddy Julius Genachowski. His goal is to permit ‘efficiency’ on the Internet by allowing leading telecoms, phone and cable companies, to segment, prioritize, Internet content. Some content controllers would charge more for faster delivery.”
Under the Obama team’s vision, Neff said, it is “possible” that large telecom companies and cable companies could “discriminate” against “third party content.”
“It appears to be the result of major lobbying by the telecoms and Comcast,” said Neff. “On the positive side, it seems that the telecoms could not discriminate against services such as Skype and VOIP [Voice Over Internet Protocol] telephony. But that is being criticized as too narrow an exception.”
Genachowski insists that critics who have called the regulations a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet simply have misunderstood where he and team Obama are coming from with net neutrality.
“Consumers and innovators have a right to a level playing field,” he said.
In fact, O’Leary documents how Lloyd believed that the Fairness Doctrine never really was repealed, and the agency simply could order its rulings to be followed.
Lloyd, according to O’Leary, believes that the success of conservative talk radio and the failure of liberal talk radio is not because one is more popular, but because the market needs a “regulatory fix.”
He suggested that the courts already have ruled the government cannot control the information, and despite Genachowki’s “goals” of the right to basic information, the right to send and get lawful Internet sites without a “central authority” that governs, that may be exactly what Genachowski’s ultimate goal remains.
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