Hugo Chavez, the rowdy left-wing president of Venezuela, doesn’t have to nibble at freedom of speech via the Internet. Unlike government officials here and elsewhere, Mr. Chavez runs an “efficient” government. He just scarfs down everything in his way.
The fixers here are pursuing something called “net neutrality,” which will change the way certain Internet providers pay for privileged rights to the Web and charge their customers accordingly. “Net neutrality” sounds good to anyone not paying attention, but it must be accomplished by a seizure of authority to do so, a seizure not by Congress (which would be scary enough), but by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Anyone paying attention can see how this would be a first step toward revival of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, sought by Barack Obama and the Democrats since he first arrived in Washington. The Fairness Doctrine would require broadcasters, definitely including the cable-TV networks, to provide airtime for anyone criticized by someone else on the air. That, too, sounds good to the inattentive and the well-meaning. What could be nicer than never having to hear anyone say discouraging things about you?
But in actual practice, this would encourage broadcasters - not the most stand-up folk anyway - to keep anyone or anything vaguely controversial off the air. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews and their noisy ilk would be silenced and sent out to find jobs selling shoes or arranging flowers. Everyone likes shoes and flowers, so what’s wrong with that? But even the inattentive can see how the Fairness Doctrine could - and no doubt would - be used to silence criticism of favored politicians and propositions dear to the hearts of favored politicians.
Mr. Chavez is only a step or two ahead of the Democrats on this one. In the name of protecting the much-abused Venezuelans, he has asked for a law imposing draconian broadcastlike regulations on the Internet. He would ban all messages showing “disrespect for public authorities,” that “incite or promote hatred,” or create “anxiety” in the population.
“We aren’t eliminating the Internet here, nor … censoring the Internet,” Mr. Chavez told his weekly television and radio audience, where his remarks definitely were not censored. “What we’re trying to do is protect ourselves against crimes and cybercrimes through a law.” He identified these crimes as messages promoting drug use, prostitution and “other” crimes. He didn’t say how the law would be enforced, but no doubt it will be enforced in the efficient way all dictatorships and authoritarian regimes enforce the law.
The new “net-neutrality” regulations here, which will have the force of law though Congress need have nothing to do with writing them, will be considered for a vote by the FCC on Tuesday. The rules being considered for the Tuesday vote are technical and complicated, and the timing of the vote clearly was arranged for Christmas week, when most people are delighted not to have to think about Washington and the trouble it makes for the rest of us.
But the FCC’s power grab has attracted a diverse array of naysayers anyway. The liberal Democrats are mostly concerned that the FCC will write rules to give breaks to Internet providers, the conservative Republicans that it’s a first step toward content control.
One of those liberal Democrats is Al Franken, proving that even a blind pig can find an occasional acorn. He’s unhappy mostly that the FCC is moving toward approving a merger of Comcast, the ubiquitous cable provider, and NBC-Universal and enabling big corporations to pay extra for Internet “toll lanes,” which would speed transmission of messages with a higher priority over the rest of us.
“Net neutrality” sounds good, says Robert M. McDowell, a Republican member of the FCC, “only if you say it fast. The Internet has been open and freedom-enhancing since it was spun off from a government research project in the early 1990s. Its nature as a diffuse and dynamic global network of networks defies top-down authority.”
But there’s something about the defiance of top-down authority and people exercising their freedoms that makes certain government officials break out in a rash. Even now some of the busybody countries at the United Nations are working on setting up “a working group” to “harmonize” global efforts to regulate the Internet. Alas, this is scariest of all. “Harmony” suggests everyone singing together to a tune written to U.N. satisfaction. Nothing is broken about the Internet that needs fixing, which is why certain cunning saboteurs are so eager to “fix” it.
c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.