Thursday, August 30, 2018

Leveling the Internet

Years from now, history students -- assuming that some school, somewhere, somehow still teaches history -- will be studying the profound effects the internet had on the humans inhabiting planet Earth.  I'm sure there will be all kinds of term papers on Changing Habits of Social Intercourse -- How the Internet Transformed Love and Romance, and more than one doctoral thesis on The Free Speech Train Wreck: How Big Corporations Derailed Free Speech on the Information Superhighway.  

You get the idea. These are the kind of retrospectives in which freshmen and graduate students alike revel, gorging themselves on footnotes to sustain their arguments in an effort to substantiate their own points of view.  Just as twentieth century students viewed the War Between the States as being all about slavery (it wasn't) to naively bolster their discussions about civil rights, I suspect future posers will look to the mid-twentieth century to defend their take on "government overreach into the freedom of the press."  Specifically, they're going to try to make the case for the government'snot interfering with the data that flows throughout the internet.

I submit to you right here and now, they shall be proven wrong, and within a decade or two, all the tech mega-monoliths, specifically search engines and social media,  will be subject to a regulatory agency much like the Federal Communications Commission, if not the FCC itself.

To begin with, you have to know your history.  Understand that while the concept of wireless communication was proven viable in the late nineteenth century, it wasn't until the early twentieth century that radio went commercial.  Until then, the best electronic communication we had was the telegraph.  When "the wireless" was born, and millions of radios were sold throughout the country, an interesting question was born with it:

Who owns the airwaves across which radio content is broadcast?

Radio waves traveling out into the air with no means of restriction meant that the content they carried could not be restricted, either.  Additionally, since the air over American soil was borderless, the good people of government were faced with a decision:  Either the American government could own the airwaves or the Americanpeople could own the airwaves.  In 1934, the Feds essentially split the difference, giving ownership of the airwaves to the American people while subjecting them to government regulation via the FCC.

Ever since, just about any kind of commercial content carried over government-regulated airwaves (there are bandwidths in which content is not regulated) has been subject to government rules and standards. And it worked just fine until about 1970, when the wheels started to come off.

The seventies is about when the first cable television systems began sprouting up. At first, cable was introduced to assure higher quality television reception where "rabbit ears" antennae simply weren't cutting it.  At some point, however, someone figured out that content flowing over privately-owned coaxial cable wasn't being transmitted over the air at all and therefore wasn't subject to government regulation.

It was a pretty slick loophole that let the Playboy channel in and cut government interference out. By trading a monthly fee for commercial free viewing, users happily propelled cable TV into an explosion of popularity.  About the only concession any government got was the local burgs' requiring cable companies to provide free public access in exchange for the monopoly within their zip codes.

But what does all this have to do with regulating the internet?  Stick with me:

In 2018, the big story is whether techno-giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google should be allowed to impose their own political biases on the content they provide between users of their services.  On the one hand, these are companies owned by shareholders, much like the radio and TV networks of old, all of which were subject to government regulation because they broadcast their content over the airwaves.  On the other, most Boomers spent the bulk of their internet infancy either dialing up through a phone cord or logging onthrough an Ethernet cable, which made the internet seem more like cable TV, and thus free from any government interference.

So with the explosive growth of internet usage, the big question when and if the government should step in and regulate or not?  I submit that government can and should regulate the techno-giants for one very simple reason:

History has repeated itself, only this time in reverse.  The internet is now as wireless as it is cabled (if not moreso), which means the content delivered to you wirelessly is once again traversing American air space.  And that's the stuff that belongs to all of us, not just the techno-giants.  All it would take is Congress updating the charter of the FCC to include any bandwidth over which internet content can be transmitted.  Simple!

Think it can't happen?  Think again.  After all, you didn't think Trump would win, either.


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