Friday, December 3, 2010


I am continually telling journalism students that we are still in the “pioneer days” of online communication. Most of us first got online in the mid to late 1990s, when the Internet seemed very 'space agee' to us. Today, although the Internet is a significant player in all of our lives, we are nonetheless still establishing its societal standards of use. That brings me to one Julius Genachowski, the current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Genachowski evidently does not approve of how you and I are handling the Internet. Instead, he wants the FCC to regulate Internet broadband providers, much like it exerts control over network television and telephone companies. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it.

Genachowski, (below, right) to his credit, wants to keep Internet providers from banning legal content. Some providers feel they can decide what is okay or not okay for us to view online. So, that part of what the chairman proposes seems to ensure our continued freedom of information. But there’s more: Genachowski on Wednesday proposed that service providers should charge customers who use the Internet more heavily than others, more for the service. He’s not real clear on why he wants to do this, but in fairness, new online movie services like Netflix are reportedly clogging up the Internet. Movies take a lot of bandwidth. In his current proposal, Genachowski calls these enterprises “problematic services,” and in his perfect world apparently providers would be able to limit how much a user can use certain services. It makes me wonder what ever happened to the free enterprise system. Do we really need the FCC to tell us how often we can use the Internet and for what? I don’t think so.

I think if there is one part our culture the government should keep its regulatory paws off of it is communication. That is why I also have some concerns about something that FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps (below, left) said this week in an interview with the BBC. He said, “It’s a pretty serious situation that we’re in. I think American media has a bad case of substance abuse right now. We are not producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue, we’re not producing as much news as we did five years, 10 years, 15 years ago and we have to reverse that trend or I think we are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country.”

Really, Mr. Copps? That’s odd, because I am a news junkie, and I can tell you unequivocally that the American dialogue right now is more vigorous than it has ever been, simply because the average citizen has a voice in it. When all we had were Walter Cronkite, Huntley & Brinkley and John Chancellor, the news simply came “at” us. Now we are actually part of the process, and it feels good. Also, now we have countless outlets for information, which allows us access to multiple perspectives. Then it is up to each individual to assimilate this wealth of information. What we now have, Mr. Copps, is a mix of ideas, rather than three news directors telling us what they believe we need to know. Sounds better to me. How about you?

If I have any concern, it is simply this: A government agency that limits, controls or regulates the flow of information is not my choice as a citizen. I want the choice of news sources. I want the free flow of information. I am smart enough to determine which information is not credible. And if I have doubts about credibility, I will find more sources until I figure it out. It’s not rocket science. It’s surfing. The problem is simply that Genachowski, although academically impressive (undergrad in history and J.D. from Harvard Law) seems to be trying to impose his opinion about online information on the rest of us. I believe your opinion and my opinion are of equal importance to his. What he is promoting is commonly known as “net neutrality.” But his version of it is a clear attempt to create an online hierarchy. One might say it’s dangerous.

As for Copps? Well, Copps (who was acting FCC chairman before Genachowski) is on record throughout the last decade in opposing deregulation of media organizations. His position has been that everything possible needs to be done to prevent communications monopolies, such as one company owning multiple news and broadcast entities in the same city. I agree with him on that. But with his background in history and academics, he is not in a position to decide what is news and what is not news. He is certainly not the arbiter of information for the American citizenry, and by making statements like the one he made to the BBC, he demonstrates his lack of understanding of the proliferation of news and information available online and via other media. He showed his cards in that regard when he said out loud that we are not producing as much news as we did 15 years ago.

I would also point out to both gentlemen that there is no turning back. The proliferation of news, information and entertainment, and the inevitable blurring of lines among all three is simply what is. No amount of regulation or enforcement is going to alter that. It would be better, I believe, to allow the free market system to determine how this all plays out, and to trust in the collective wisdom of the citizenry to determine what works and what doesn’t. Two FCC officials do not a citizenry make.

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