Is a free Internet too good to be true?

John Ostrowski
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Posted: Jun 20, 2006 12:01 AM

The Internet is the newest and most free medium of communication, which can be used to check both government and the mainstream media. This means, of course, that the government is already looking to regulate it. If certain legislators have their way, the end of free blogging on the Internet will come sooner rather than later.

Many people know the old adage, “It’s too good to be true.” Well, the Internet is most likely soon to fall victim to the adage, “It’s too good to be free.” Not that this should be surprising in any way. As communications and entertainment industries emerge and gain power, regulation of some type is all but inevitable. Self-regulation restricts the movie industry (via the Motion Picture Association of America) and print media (via promises of “objectivity”) – the latter falling in contrast with the original theory of print in the United States.

Government regulation restricts broadcast media (via the FCC) and even print media (via neo-liberal justices shirking the libertarian roots of the First Amendment). Not all regulation is necessarily a bad thing. Case in point, the Child Online Protection Act mandated that schools and libraries receiving certain federal discounts block obscene and pornographic material. In this case, the government both fulfills a moral duty to protect children from obscene material in certain public places and does not violate the First Amendment.

Political bloggers have thus far dodged the regulatory bullet. The McCain-Feingold Bill, which drastically curtailed freedom of speech by imposing limits on soft money contribution, does not apply to Internet speech—for the moment. The FEC sought to codify that “public communications” (which can be regulated under McCain-Feingold) did not include the Internet, but that addition was struck down by a District Court. In March of this year, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) tried to rectify this problem by proposing the “Online Freedom of Speech Act,” which would have excluded online content from “public communications.”

In response to this move, an alternative anti-free speech bill was proposed that would place under regulation those sites whose expenditures totaled more than $10,000 annually. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) was laughably titled “Internet Free Speech Protection Act.” This is a pure example of Orwellian double-speak, as the purpose of the bill is certainly not the protection of free speech on the Internet. This fact didn’t stop Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a supporter of the Allen bill, from issuing a press release condemning Hensarling’s bill as the one being “deceptive.”

The result was a compromise of sorts. Hensarling’s bill (and the alternative) would be shelved because the FEC would release new rules for the Internet. On the plus side, all other online political activity goes unregulated. Unfortunately, online political advertising now falls under the McCain-Feingold regulations, meaning that the government has its foot in the door when it comes to online regulation.

All of this regulatory nonsense—including the McCain-Feingold and Allen’s proposal—approaches the First Amendment from the neo-liberal perspective. This theory holds that speech should be evaluated in light of the public interest, and government is the ultimate arbiter in messy situations. Conceivably, this means limiting content that some (read: the judicial and perhaps legislative branch) deem inappropriate, or putting prohibitions on certain speakers in an effort to artificially create equality. The libertarian theory seeks the opposite—to maximize the freedom of the speaker and liberate him from government intrusion.

In the long-term, passage of any neo-liberal bills pertaining to the Internet would increase regulation and would essentially destroy the free flow of information currently on the Internet. So, is the Internet too good to be free? The cries of bloggers have been steadily rising, and rightly so. Regulation of online political ads has begun, and bills have been proposed—thankfully they haven’t been passed, yet—that would subject higher-rolling political sites to regulation. If neo-liberals have their way, indeed the Internet will not be free. Undoubtedly, their intentions are good, but these regulations should ultimately be judged not based on whether or not they are well-meaning, but in light of the Constitution.