Friday, May 16, 2008

Free Speech in the 21st Century

Freedom of the press extends only to those who own one -- or so the saying goes. It once rang true in a world ruled by newspaper chains, radio and television broadcasters, and cable networks.

But the Internet has changed all that, delivering the press -- and in theory its freedoms -- to any person with a good idea and a connection to the Web.

Backyard Auteurs

This extraordinary twist to "mass media" has catapulted many an everyday YouTube auteur to celebrity-status while turning ideas born in a garage or dorm room into Fortune 500 companies. It is the reason so many Americans are now passionate about protecting their right to choose on the Internet. But it's also triggered a backlash from the old regime -- media corporations that built their empires upon controlling the ebb and flow of information in America.

This list of media giants includes the nation's largest phone and cable providers, who provide a portal to the high-speed Internet for more than 98 percent of residential users in America. Now they want to be more than just a window to the Web. These companies have proposed a closed scheme of Internet fees and filters that affords them the final say over which ideas make it to the top of the heap.

Say "goodbye" to indy rock bands breaking big via a backyard YouTube video and "hello" to censored rock-and-roll courtesy of AT&T's "Blue Room."

Open v. Closed -- A Clash of Cultures

This closed business model has proven a financial windfall for the gatekeepers of traditional media. But it comes at a too heavy a cost to the millions of Americans who see the open Internet as the 21st Century's catalyst for free speech and opportunity.

It's against the backdrop of this clash of cultures -- open versus closed -- that an unusual series of official events have occurred this year.

Washington -- where lobbyists for Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have long had the home-field advantage -- recently witnessed an extraordinary series of public meetings and congressional hearings on the fate of the Internet. If you listen carefully, you might actually hear the people's interests being represented. They are certainly being expressed.

The 110th Congress has called Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube, to testify in favor of Net Neutrality -- the principle that safeguards the Internet against blocking and censorship from Internet service providers. In recent weeks, leading consumer and Internet rights advocates, Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs and Hollywood's creative community have testified that an open Internet is vital to the health of our economy and democracy.

The Federal Communications Commission has gone one further, venturing beyond the Beltway to take the public temperature on the Internet.

At hearings in Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif., the agency got an earful; hundreds of Net Neutrality supporters stood before the microphone to condemn Comcast's recent efforts to block people from using peer-to-peer applications, which make possible the sharing of videos and other rich media without the need for corporate media to broker the content. One after the other. people called on the federal agency for basic protections against Comcast's brand of digital discrimination.

The New Free Speech Movement

They are not alone. A growing movement of Internet users is pushing for legislation to stop would-be gatekeepers from re-routing the free-flowing Web. It has attracted millions of supporters ranging from to the Christian Coalition of America, from independent rockers OK Go to the executive producer of the TV show "Hannah Montana."

Our voices are starting to rise above the din of lobbyists that too often drowns out genuine public debate in Washington. It's now up to our elected officials to act.

The official inquiry on Net Neutrality has given a public voice to the remarkable consensus in favor of free speech and user choice on the Web. And it may turn out to be more than show. The bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" is making its way through the House at this very moment. It is a bill that takes into account the many voices that have spoken out since Net Neutrality became a much-debated principle.

Fundamentally, this bill recognizes that we must establish baseline protection for an unfettered Internet. It doesn't call for Web regulation, but gives the public the power to stop the old regime from turning the Internet from a revolution of the many into a funnel for the few.

And that's a freedom worth fighting for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Karr,

Very valid. The fact that you have to dumb-this-down to the "Hannah Montana" level speaks to the thesis of Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason, which builds a pretty strong case for the current Administration's attempted illegal takeover of our Government (and the American Way of Life/our good name) and in the process the collective lack of any challenge to all they have done that is unconstitutional and "self" destructive. The book helps to explain why Ashley Simpson's pregnancy is SO MUCH MORE important than, say, a pre-emptive and substantially war (that was not debated by congress, domestic spying, use of torture, Katrina's Smoke and Mirror campaign and the assualt on the environment - all high crimes that are not being investigated, much less pursued with the jealous vigor that Clinton's BJ was by independent counsel.