Saturday, March 5, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Introducing PFF's Center for Digital Media Freedom

Hello. Adam Thierer here. I'm excited to be joining the PFF team as a Senior Fellow and the Director of PFF's new Center for Digital Media Freedom. Allow me to tell you a little more about this project and what we hope to accomplish.

We are blessed today to live in an Information Age; a world of unprecedented media availability and diversity in which we can access and consume whatever media we want, wherever, whenever, and however we want. For most of human civilization, by contrast, people lived in extreme information poverty. But today, to the extent we complain about the availability of information, it is because we have access to TOO MUCH of it! In fact, there now exists a growing body of psychological and sociological literature and academic studies dealing with this problem, which goes by a variety of entertaining names: "information overload," "cognitive overload;" "information anxiety;" "information fatigue syndrome;" "information paralysis;" "techno-stress;" "information pollution;" "data smog;" and even "data asphyxiation."

Isn't this is a truly wonderful dilemma! After all, there could be many worse things for a society to be suffering from than this. I'll take "data smog" over real smog any day. And I can't ever remember anyone really being asphyxiated from reading too many books, newspapers, or websites. The more information, the better, I say.

Alas, life in the Information Age has its detractors. The funny thing about information and media is that the more you have, the more people find to complain about. This isn't really shocking, of course. When humans have their beliefs challenged, or simply don't like what they are seeing or hearing, they will respond negatively. They will complain about what the speaker is saying, how they are saying it, or on what platform they are standing to deliver the message. They will complain that the speaker's message is scandalous, radical, heretical, blasphemous, rude, vulgar, or just plain stupid. Consequently, some will claim that government must regulate speakers to protect society from the message they seek to deliver. If that fails, critics will attack the soapbox instead of the speaker standing on it. They will claim that the book, paper, pamphlet, magazine, radio station, TV program, cable network, satellite system, or even Internet website has unfair power or influence in society and should be (a) regulated to restrict what is being said, (b) made available to all, or some combination or (a) & (b).

Ah yes, there is a bit of a press critic in each of us. Who among us has not been guilty of saying "There oughta be a law!" after seeing or hearing something that particularly upset us in the media? Indeed, the impulse to censor speech or regulate media is probably as old as the press or even writing itself. The first day someone put pen (or quill) to paper was likely also the first day someone proposed censoring the message that writer sought to convey.

The point is, everyone seems to have an axe to grind with the media and all too often they want to grind that axe on the stone of Big Government. This is what PFF's Center for Digital Media Freedom will seek to counter. Our goal is to maximize media freedom both in a structural (business) sense and a social (speech-related) sense. We aim to remove the regulatory shackles that limit the market flexibility of media operators, while ensuring freedom of speech and expression throughout society. Importantly, we will draw links between structural and social media controls, which are typically treated as unrelated public policy concerns. Indeed, the regulation of media architecture has an important bearing on freedom of speech. If government can control the soapbox, it can control the speech delivered from that soapbox.

Finally, with new media technologies and outlets radically reshaping communications and challenging traditional regulatory assumptions, the Center for Digital Media Freedom will advocate an end to asymmetrical regulation of various media services and providers. We consider all media equal in the eyes of the First Amendment. In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, we will argue that traditional government controls on media are increasingly unjust, indefensible, and ultimately unsustainable.

I look forward to engaging in spirited public debate on these issues and know that I will have plenty opponents--on both the Left and the Right--to square off against. Here's a preview of what you'll see from the Center for Digital Media Freedom in coming months:

* In late Spring / early Summer, we plan on releasing a book entitled Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership. It will debunk the many myths surrounding the debate over media ownership liberalization. The book's 8 chapters, 200+ pages, dozens of charts, and 560 footnotes will document the stunning media diversity we have at our disposal today and argue that, to the extent there has ever been a "Golden Age" of media, we are living in it today.

* In a few months, I will be releasing a new paper on "The Future of Indecency Regulation in a World of Media Convergence." It will discuss the latest crackdown on "indecenct" broadcast radio and television and point out how the entire Red Lion / Pacifica regulatory regime is doomed to fail as media technologies continue to converge. For example, with television programmers now zapping "mobisodes" (mobile episodes) to cell phones, does than mean the FCC will need to start regulating "decency" on mobile devices? It looks like that's where we might be heading. A few weeks ago, the FCC sent a letter over to the CTIA (the wireless industry's trade association) basically telling them to start self-censoring themselves. Presumably, if wireless operators don't do a good enough job, the FCC plans to pounce. Meanwhile, various forces in Congress continue to push for speech controls on cable and satellite television even though they are subscription-based media outlets. Last session, an effort to roll indecency regs onto cable only missed passing in the Senate Commerce Committee by one vote! This is exactly the sort of thing we plan on fighting at the Center for Digital Media Freedom. At a minimum, we want to create a "regulatory firewall" between old media outlets and the new ones when it comes to speech regulation. I'd prefer getting rid of most of the speech controls on traditional, over-the-air outlets too, but I'd settle for at least keeping them off new media outlets and technologies.

* Finally, I plan on sounding off on a host of other important media policy issues that will continue to be debated in policy circles this year, including: a la carte mandates on cable operators; "must carry" regulations; the ongoing digital television transition; public radio & TV funding; and proposals to regulate "violent" video games.

So stay tuned, there's lots more to come. Oh, and allow me to send a personal message out to my frequent media policy sparring partners over at the Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union and so on... Get ready guys, here I come!

posted by Adam Thierer @ 5:20 PM | Free Speech , Mass Media