Thursday’s historic vote by the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband was not the first but merely the latest step toward regulating speech. The FCC voted to no longer classify broadband as a Title I entity (of the Communications Act) but instead as a Title II entity, like common carriers such as telephone service. The commission’s three Democrats approved the change over the dissent of the agency’s two Republican commissioners.
Anyone who believes this vote was about preserving a free and open Internet as so-called “net neutrality” supporters have claimed has not been paying close attention. One only has to revisit statements and actions undertaken by Administration officials in the last several years to understand the end-game.
President Barack Obama’s first-term chairman of the FCC was former Harvard Law School classmate, Julius Genachowski. Genachowski directed a multi-pronged effort aimed at increasing government control of news, information, and entertainment.
The FCC’s ill-conceived National Broadband Plan, was the first round in moving electronic media (the dominant form of information distribution) from other platforms (e.g. broadcast) to broadband.
The goal, claimed Genachowski, was to make the spectrum occupied by television broadcasters available to other wireless platforms such as cellular telephones. That was merely the excuse. By virtue of the broadband reclassification vote, the regulatory light touch of the Internet, which allowed it flourish in the past couple of decades, was abandoned in favor of the heavy-hand of government regulation.
Perhaps to mollify critics, the agency’s Democratic commissioners insist they will exclude Internet service providers from some of the other Title II regulatory burdens placed on telephony.
Does anyone truly believe DC politicians will resist the urge to extract billions of dollars in payments from Internet service providers as they currently do with telephony in order feed the Universal Service Fund? The USF was a reelection windfall for Obama. It was used as a slush fund to hand-out the notoriously nicknamed “Obama phones” to low-income voters. About 2.2 billion dollars in Obama phones were given away in 2012.
There were other FCC actions that signaled the Democratic majority’s desire to regulate content.
The “Future of the Media” inquiry fell well-outside the agency’s statutory charter. The 468-page report addressed topics in which the agency did not have the expertise to properly evaluate the information it collected including company business models, corporate debt levels, newsroom staffing policies, and print industry operations.
The report contained what could be one of Washington, D.C.’s greatest juxtapositions. The executive summary’s opening statement was “In most ways today’s media landscape is more vibrant than ever, offering faster and cheaper distribution networks, fewer barriers to entry, and more ways to consume information. Choice abounds.” Apparently, this leads to the conclusion that this better-faster-cheaper-more-abundant media needs government regulation.
Another regulatory agency, the Federal Trade Commission, also unqualified and without statutory authority, launched its own effort to improve journalism. The FTC’s “Reinvention of Journalism” discussed several proposals to “reinvent” journalism, including some that would drastically alter the media landscape and severely impede a free press.
The staff discussion draft suggests a news “licensing arrangement be adopted, perhaps with the government’s help and support.” That suggestion of licensing news organizations should send shivers down the spine of any First Amendment supporter.
Another proposal was “[a] national Fund for Local News …[to] be created with money the Federal Communications Commission now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers [emphasis added].” Does anyone still think the FCC wouldn’t demand broadband providers pay into the onerous Universal Service Fund in order to fund government-approved new entities?
I could continue ad infinitum with the FTC report but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, allies of the Obama White House and influential advocates of regulated content, such as Free Press, have been completely transparent in their wishes. They call for the government to spend as much as $30 billion annually to fund approved news operations.
Lawrence Strickling, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, is the principal advisor to the president on telecommunications and information policy. As assistant secretary, he proposed the government regulate Internet content. “[W]e rely on the Internet for essential social purposes: health, energy, efficiency and education.” He added, “There [should] be rules or laws created to protect our interests.”
In 2009, Cass Sunstein was appointed to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Fourteen years earlier his book Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech revealed his hostility toward the First Amendment. Like Free Press and the FTC, he argued (in a subsequent book) in favor of government “subsidised (sic) programming,” and that “the government might impose ‘must carry’ rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions,” and the government implement a “Fairness Doctrine” for the Internet requiring some websites to offer opposing viewpoints.
One can easily imagine which websites would receive universal carriage and which would be mandated to carry opposing views.