The Taming of the Internet

The last week of February was pretty monumental in the world of free speech.

Let’s start with the win for the public soap box, the cacophony that is the internet.

The rules will be challenged and fought and likely evaded but the FCC voted to approve net neutrality, federally prohibiting internet providers from controlling the speed with which any particular content goes down their pipes and, in the process, saying what has been obvious for a long time – the internet has become a utility, an integral part of our society and should be managed that way.

This is huge for all those who are not going to be held at ransom by the internet service providers (ISPs) who would have been able to extract fees to guarantee easy flow. But more significantly, the decision ensures that commercial interests of ISP’s do not trump the American exceptionalism that is Free Speech.

There is an old cliché from the age of newspapers that the press is indeed free, but only for those who own the presses.

The internet changed that, and empowered such forces as the Tea Party and Facebook. It is loud, unruly, chaotic. And that is what makes it wonderful and terrifying at the same time.

When All Things Media spoke to FCC officials last year, they were wary of passing regulations that would play too heavy a hand in shaping the future. With Net Neutrality they didn’t have a choice – they either would give the ISP’s the power to control their pipes (one argument being they needed to be able to control the flow to guarantee equal access) or give the content creators unfettered access.

The FCC knew it would get battered whichever way it went. But it took a stand and did what so many people say agencies never do – its job.

Which brings us to a perhaps equally wise lack of spine.

Within a week of the FCC’s vote on Net Neutrality, Google – the de facto sorter of the internet – took steps to make it harder for “adult” blogs to be found on its blogger platform, forcing them to go private. Three days later it backtracked after a deluge of comments saying it would just reinforce the existing warning page. But non-commercial “adult blogs” could continue essentially unbothered.

In trying to valiantly protect the innocent, Google suddenly found itself in the strange position of becoming not just the conveyer of free speech but suddenly its arbiter. It was a noble attempt but someone at Google must have looked into the abyss of what the internet Goliath was about to step into and thought better.

It was a wise choice. It is enough to have the all-powerful algorithm essentially decide what we all get to see without the added headache of becoming cultural cops. That’s a role would make the FCC’s current situation look palpably enviable.

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