Regulating the Internet

The idea that there needs to be regulation of the Internet is gaining steam, but attempting to control an emerging technology is not a new concept.

When the printing press was invented, governments and the church, regulated it because they understood, and feared, its power. It took several centuries before draconian laws to control publications were reduced.  During the Civil War Union generals put controls on journalists covering battles because reporters could file their stories much more quickly using the new-fangled telegraph and fast steam trains. The Union didn’t want too many details about troop strength or weakness, weapons or the location of ships published in the many daily papers in the North, lest Confederate spies saw the information.  National security is still protected in today’s laws.

            Perhaps the most relevant drive to regulate a new communications technology comes from the history of that device still used by hundreds of millions, the radio.  When the first radio station came on the air in 1919, KDKA in Pittsburgh, it was considered a curious toy.  But the power of radio to communicate to a mass audience soon became clear and hundreds of radio stations started popping up all over the country. Like the Internet in the past few years, it was chaotic. As the number of stations grew rapidly, they sometimes chose frequencies already being used by another station.  They simply built a transmitter with more power and overwhelmed the first station. Then the other station would retaliate.  Frequencies were not regulated and stations shifted around the dial. The technology couldn’t be controlled accurately.  The power at which they broadcast varied greatly from a few watts to as much a million watts.  People bought radios in huge numbers to take advantage of all they could hear on this fancy new thing.  Some of what emanated from those new receivers was not pretty.  There were ads promoting potions promising to cure everything from warts to cancer.  There was a lot of hateful speech.  Some of it was racist; some of the religious broadcasts were particularly ugly when describing other faiths.  A few religious hucksters offered guaranteed entry to heaven – in exchange for a donation.  Or they shouted, “Put your hands on the radio, and be cured.”  The early radio days were quite a mess.

            There came a push to regulate the new invention from a broad cross section of the population.  Many were upset about the technical inconsistency, many worried about the airwaves being filled with hatred and others about the false claims in advertising. Owners of stations were among those who asked the government to step in and help sort it all out. 

            In 1924 the federal government began regulating radio frequencies and power to reduce the interference among stations.  In 1927 Congress passed the Radio Act, which declared, for the first time, that the airwaves belonged to the public and could be legally regulated.  In 1934, early in President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, Congress passed the Communications Act, which created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  It was given the power to regulate much of the radio spectrum, telephones, the telegraph and other forms of wired or broadcast communication. Television soon followed, and later everything from CB radios, to garage door openers to the Internet became part of the FCC’s portfolio.  Within 15 years of the first radio station a regulatory scheme was put in place and the FCC remains the main regulator of much communication in the U.S.  We are now just over the first 20 years of major Internet use. 

            The similarities between the early days of radio and those of the web are real.  The remarkable positive potential and the hateful discourse, false claims and chaos are part of our online experience as was radio 100 years ago.  Of course, one major difference is the fact that our e-mail and webpages didn’t use the public airwaves at first.  The Congress decided long ago they could regulate the airwaves because they belonged to everyone.  Privately-owned cables were and are considered a separate issue. Now, as much of our online connection uses the airwaves through cellphones and wi-fi, it may be a different legal issue.

            Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told Congress he didn’t object to some kind of regulation but how to regulate the Internet raises tough questions. Should there be licenses for Internet Service Providers(ISP), like broadcasters are required to have?  Should the government bar (or insist on) any kinds of content?  Radio and TV stations are subject, for instance, to indecency law, the equal time rule in political campaigns, can’t advertise cigarettes or cause a panic and are supposed to act in the public interest.  That raises important First Amendment questions.  Should the public continue to rely on private, for-profit companies to set their own rules like those early radio stations, or should limits be set by the government?  What should those limits be?  Is an Internet service provider responsible for false or libelous material channeled through it?   (Current law says they are not.)  Should BOTS be permitted online?  Should the purchaser of all political advertising be revealed?  Should minors be more protected from porn?  Are some online companies simply too big and should they be broken up?  Can you stop hackers and foreign governments from messing with elections? How do you avoid intrusive government censorship? Can our privacy be protected?

            The analogy to early radio does not completely align, of course.  The Web has produced many new and unique issues.  The country did figure out how, if not perfectly, to regulate broadcasters. Is there the need and the will to find solutions now to deal with some of the wonders, and the serious problems, the Internet has created for each of us?

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