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March 16, 2005

A NEW CONGRESSIONAL THREAT TO INTERNET FREEDOM

Declan McCullagh, the eagle-eyed reporter who broke the story about the Federal Elections Commission's threatened political censorship of bloggers under the McCain-Feingold Act, yesterday reported on C-NET a new threat to internet freedom.

This time it comes from powerful, octogenarian Republican Senator Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation. Stevens and his committee are considering a censorious House-passed "indecency" bill regulating radio and TV broadcasters--and now, McCullagh reports, the weighty Senator wants to extend its provisions, not just to cable TV, but to the internet.

Those provisions include sharply increased fines--just the sort of thing designed to frighten many timid, profit-bottom-line-minded internet service providers (like AOL, which has exhibited frightening censorious tendencies in the last couple of years)--and a proposal for a government-imposed ratings system. In particular, Stevens' proposed amendments -- which, if adopted, would have a decidedly chilling effect on creative and artistic freedom on both cable TV and the 'net -- seem motivated by the downloading of movies and videos from the 'net. But the effect would be much, much broader than that--as McCullagh notes, the FCC has defined "indecency" as "everything from Howard Stern's broadcasts to certain four-letter words." Extending those FCC "indecency" standards from broadcast to the 'net and cable TV would drastically change the audio-visual landscape. For example, explicit sex education, or safe-sex videos on the web featuring graphic instruction on how to use a condom, could potentially be covered by this new "indecency" bill. (Poor Howard--he fled broadcast radio for the freedom of the internet, and if Stevens has his way even that will be taken away from him).

Remember the Hays Office that imposed family-values censorship on the movies in the 1920s, a heavy-handed squelching of "indecency" that cramped and crippled scriptwriters and moviemakers for decades thereafter? Well, what Stevens is talking about sounds very much like the same thing, except now it's about cable TV and the 'net. And it could very well extend to the "speech" of individuals in their internet writings. The C-NET article harvests worried quotes about Stevens' plans from a spectrum ranging from the ACLU to libertarian conservatives. "I think Stevens is probably laying the groundwork for another assault on speech online," Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the libertarian, free-market Progress & Freedom Foundation, told McCullagh. "He's obviously pointing the way to other members of Congress, saying that if they want to control the media, they have to start at cable and satellite first, and then target the Internet...This foreshadows the coming debate we'll have over IP-enabled services in the video space."

A transcript of Stevens' remarks about his plans was released by his committee. Here's the most relevant excerpt, of Stevens' answer to a press question (Stevens' comments about what he'd do to cable should be taken as applying to the 'net as well):

"Question: On a different issue, are you still planning for the Commerce Committee to markup the Broadcast Decency bill and do you know when that would be and also are you considering expanding that to include cable?

"Chairman Stevens: It will be as soon as we can bring it about and yes, I intend to try and level the playing field. I take the position that at  the time the Supreme Court made its decision about cable, cable was just one of the ways for public access to television products. Today 85 percent of the television that is brought to American homes is brought by cable and I believe that the playing field should be leveled. We have imposed this as a standard on local broadcasters. Under the law, we compel cable to carry those local broadcasters. But today when this indecency takes place, the people I’ve talked to call their local television station and say: 'What’s this? Why should I be looking at this?' The second thing is, cable has situation where if you want to protect yourself, your children from that, you have the duty to call them and say how can I prevent this from coming into my house. We’re not going to censor cable. We’re just going to do, by the way, what the movie business does in the beginning – you read the ad about the movie, you look at it and it tells you whether its something you should take your children to. Why should cable insist that you have to call them because your children have already seen something that you don’t want them to see? Now, we are going to mark it up and I hope cable comes to its senses and understands that I think the American people mean business. I’ve got a thousand emails, what not, spurred by the cable industry. We got 10,000 from the public and I believe the public is with us.

"We ought to find some way to say, here is a block of channels, whether it’s delivered by broadband, by VoIP, by whatever it is, to a home, that is clear of the stuff you don’t want your children to see. And, we're not saying you can’t, you know, you can buy anything you want, I don’t care how they package it. If you want to pay for, you have a right to buy it. We’re not saying anything about purchases, except we’re saying, they have the burden to tell you what’s in it like the movie business does, not force you to expose your children first and then go back and say how can I get rid of this stuff. I think they’ll come to their senses, I really do.

"I think the Congress means business now. I have not received many complaints from, I can’t think of any real complaints from Members of Congress about what I have been saying. They say right on, but do it right, and that’s why we postponed the markup until after the recess and we’re going to do it right and I invite cable to come in and talk. I’ve told them, we’re ready to talk.

"As a matter of fact, I’ve only been married for 25 years and I’m going on my honeymoon a week from today. Coming back from that honeymoon we’ll stop in at the cable convention and talk to them."

It is particularly of note that Stevens says he hasn't received "any real complaints from Members of Congress about what I have been saying." If Grandpa Stevens manages, in a House-Senate closed-door conference, to lard up the House-passed bill with the provisions he appears to be suggesting here, there will be virtually no possibility of defeating the measure in either chamber. Only a major public outcry now offers the slimmest of chances to stymie this giant new step toward regulating internet and cable content.

Posted by Direland at 02:55 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Exactly right Oli! Stevens must be running for something!

Posted by: richard lo cicero | Mar 16, 2005 10:39:53 AM

Surely if this bill is passed, will not American based Web host suffer financially. If Howard Stern is censored on American sites, will he not just switch to a British, or German or whereever based server. Distance is largely irrelevant on the net. American attempts to legislate it will merely create a surge of business leaving the states and ending up elsewhere. Possibly not the best thing to do in the current economic climate.
Although the US is the biggest nation online, it has an alarming tendency to treat the net (and by extension, the web) as an American entity. It is not, and it should not be regulated as if that were the case.

Posted by: Oli | Mar 16, 2005 4:57:03 AM

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