Friday, August 24, 2007

Net Neutrality

As I was trolling the internet late last night, looking for sleep, I happened upon the Bill Moyer's Journal blog. Front and center was a poll asking readers how they felt about net neutrality. (If you're not familiar with the term, please, please, please click this link and learn about it. It is hands down, bar none, the single most important issue you don't yet know about.)

After answering the poll, I posted a comment on the PBS web site, which I've expanded here:

I took a class recently called, "TV Industry and Policy". I was surprised to find that the whole first third of the class was dedicated to the birth and development of American radio. The professor's reasoning was that it would be impossible to understand the form that television took in the U.S. (as compared to most other countries) without understanding its regulatory/commercial roots in radio.

What does this have to do with net neutrality?

Well, in the early days of radio, virtually everything was experimental. Everything was point-to-point, 'user-generated' content. Individuals were innovating daily, finding out just how far the new technology could be pushed. They were using homemade transmitters and receivers, which they fashioned out of coffee cans and bits of copper wire.

One could liken the level of excitement and anticipation to how we feel about the potential of the internet.

In the beginning, the airwaves were filled with content as diverse as the American people. Everyday citizens were sending out glorious sound through the air from small towns and big cities all over the country. Commentary, news, entertainment, and just plain old chatting ruled the day.

But before long, a bright young man named David Sarnoff (future head of RCA) realized that if a company could broadcast from a single location out to everybody else, they could make a bundle of money (and wield enormous power) in the process.

RCA, at the time, was primarily interested in selling radio receivers- they wanted to replace all of the coffee cans with their own models. But they needed to figure out how to consolidate the industry first.

RCA lobbied Congress hard (quite successfully as it turns out). Their argument was that space on the airwaves was limited. Interference and chaos were becoming a problem and order needed to be established.

The answer to this problem was simple: The government would allocate space on the spectrum using the careful distribution of licenses.

The only problem was, on what basis should licenses be granted? The answer, everyone agreed, was that licenses should be granted on the basis of an individual's or organization's ability to "provide for the public good". The ability to ensure both 'quality' of content and 'social benefit' was the rubric they would use.

It was clear that individuals could not be trusted with the responsibility of maintaining such lofty ideals. Even educational institutions such as universities were questionable.

RCA, on the other hand, was the perfect candidate (at least according to their lobbyists). And so the first network was born: the National Broadcasting Company.

Long story short, virtually all of the individual users who were generating content ended up getting shut down. Educational institutions and religious groups found that their broadcasts had no place whatsoever in the new paradigm.

Almost overnight, all of those individual voices were silenced. And one booming voice took their place.

Out of RCA came NBC. And out of NBC came ABC and CBS.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It took a almost half a century before public broadcasting found its place. Everything we know about television today (how limited and silly it is) was determined by 1930s, long before the first televisions entered American homes.

Why? Because limited and silly appeals to the broadest number of people- the lowest common denominator. This was what the FCC determined when it set out to define, "quality" and "public good". It just so happened that advertisers, network execs, and the FCC were all on the same page about this.

(This is in stark contrast to television in virtually every other country on the planet.)

The FCC has always been in the pocket of the Networks... and Congress just the same.

Sure there have been notable exceptions, but the overwhelming fact is that the "public good", in the eyes of those who represent us, has virtually always been determined by memos written by the industry- particu;arly since the '80s. They actually write the regulations that govern them. I'm not exaggerating- they literally write some of the legislation passed in the Congress and used by the FCC.

And now, as the Internet has been hoisted upon the chopping block, it is again to the FCC and Congress that the telephone, cable, and media conglomerates are now appealing.

As I understand it, Congress has to actively pass legislation to stop the conglomerates from conglomerating the internet. If they're not outspoken (meaning the public is not outspoken) the big companies will roll right over them. They can do what they want with it. After all, as they are quick to remind us, they laid the wires.

And so the bottom line is: If you ever find yourself wishing for a little more variety than than the mainstream media provides, if you ever wanted a little more NewsHour and a little less Situation Room, you would do well to keep a close eye on the Verizons and Viacoms involved in this debate.

Because somebody stands to gain an awful lot by consolidating the internet...I'm just not sure it's you and I.

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