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Monday, May 22, 2006

Hillary Clinton, Net Neutrality Regulation & the Great Leap of Faith
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Proving just how surreal the debate over Net neutrality has become, we now have many people telling us that it is "the Internet's First Amendment" and that federal regulation is needed to "Save the Internet."

Apparently, these folks have convinced themselves that, at least in this instance, government regulation is really no big deal and that it won't threaten the future of the Internet. They want us to believe that the same people who have gave us Bridges to Nowhere and an endless string of unbalanced budgets are somehow now well-suited to manage something as complicated as the Internet and broadband networks. They imagine that lawmakers and bureaucrats will regulate just enough to get the job done and help bring about some sort of idyllic Internet nirvana. Moreover, they apparently believe that policymakers will do all this without expansively regulating other online activities, commerce or speech.

How can smart people make this leap of faith? I really think Net neutrality supporters are caught up in a hopeless illusion about government regulation in this case. It all reminds me of a line from those rock-n'-roll sages Guns N' Roses: "I've worked too hard for my illusions just to throw them all away." (Yes, it's true, I'm a bit of a head-banger at heart. Moreover, I just get tired of quoting Aristotle and Milton Friedman all the time.)

While it's true that I am a skeptic about government regulation in almost every instance, I am still surprised about how many Internet-savvy people are willing to make this major leap of faith and put their trust in government without considering the unintended consequences of Big Government control.

Consider the recent comments of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) regarding why she's backing Net neutrality mandates: "Each day on the Internet views are discussed and debated in an open forum without fear of censorship or reprisal."

When I read that, I practically fell off my chair. It's not just that Sen. Clinton is asking us to believe in some asinine conspiracy theory about how broadband companies are supposedly out to censor our thoughts or engage in reprisals. ("Reprisals"? For what?) No, what really blew my mind here was the fact that Ms. Clinton had the chutzpah to declare that the private sector was somehow the real threat to online speech.

After all, those of you who follow First Amendment issues know that Ms. Clinton's name frequently pops up in news stories about new government proposals to regulate speech. In the early 1990s, she promoted aggressive new federal regulations under the Children's Television Act, a law that imposed children's programming requirements on television broadcasters. In the mid-90s, she stood with her husband in support of the Communications Decency Act, which proposed a federal censorship regime for online speech. More recently, I've been writing several pieces about her crusade to regulate video game content. She's even hinted that government needs to do more about objectionable content on i-Pods. And don't forget what she said after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke back in 1998 about how "we are all going to have to rethink how we deal with (the Internet)."

Well, apparently she's been doing some serious rethinking about the Internet and its unregulated status in particular. Like other lawmakers, Sen. Clinton says Net neutrality regulation is needed to "save the Internet" from some a private sector boogeyman that doesn't exist. And she wants us to believe that she and others in Congress and at the FCC will accomplish this task without imposing burdensome new government regulations on Internet speech or commerce.

Again, why are so many people willing to take this leap of faith? Once we open the door and invite government in to regulate Internet architecture, business models, and pricing decisions, it's only a matter of time before they up the ante and propose regulating a whole lot more.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:47 PM | Free Speech , Net Neutrality

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