Blogs in the Balance?

by on October 19, 2006

Perhaps the most important misleading claim made in Bill Moyers’s informercial for Internet regulation is the notion that we’re in imminent danger of telcos using their control over the “last mile” to influence the direction of political debates. Moyers’s format didn’t allow him to go into the argument in much detail, but fortunately Yochai Benkler does on page 156:

[The network owner, D, has] the power to shape A’s information environment by selectively exposing A to information in the form of communications from others. Most commonly, we might see this where D decides that B will pay more if all infrastructure is devoted to permitting B to communicate her information to A and C, rather than any of it used to convey As message to C. D might then refuse to carry A’s message to C and permit only B to communicate to A and C. The point is that from A’s perspective, A is dependent on D’s decisions as to what information can be carried on the infrastructure, among whom, and in what directions. To the extent of that dependence, A’s autonomy is compromised. We might call the requirement that D can place on A as a precondition to using the infrastructure an “influence exaction.”

Sometimes, highly styized examples like this can illuminate important points by removing extraneous details. In this case, Benkler has done just the opposite: he’s abstracted away all the real-world characteristics of the web that are relevant to this issue. When we add them back in, it becomes obvious that this argument doesn’t work.

In a nutshell, what makes the Internet revolutionary for political discussion is that it’s a “pull” technology, in contrast to virtually all previous technologies which operated on a “push” model. My cable company has chosen roughly 50 television channels for me to choose from. They’re all broadcasted to my house continuously, and my only task is to choose among the 50 channels on offer. The Internet is different. I don’t sit down at my computer and flip one by one through the universe of blogs until I reach the one I want to read. My ISP waits until I send a request for a particular blog, and then my ISP goes out and fetches it for me.

If my cable company drops CNN from its lineup and puts Fox News in its place, Joe Consumer might might shrug and watch Fox. It’s conceivable that this sort of manipulation could nudge public opinion in a conservative direction. But if Joe types the address for Dialy Kos into his web browser and his ISPs gives him Michelle Malkin instead, he’s certainly not going to shrug and read that instead. He’ll call his friends and neighbors and tell them how outraged he is that his ISP is trying to manipulate him. He’ll probably switch to another ISP, if he has any choices. He’ll call the media. If the ISP is very large, journalists will suddenly get a flood of calls from outraged Daily Kos readers. Journalists, always hungry for a controversy, will report on the story.

Most importantly, there’s absolutely no chance that such a tactic would make Joe Consumer more conservative. If anything, he’ll take his ISP’s behavior as evidence that his views are under attack, and will search out new sources for left-of-center political commentary. Given that there are hundreds of thousands of blogs on the Internet, there’s no way the ISP can read all of them and block the ones whose views it dislikes. The ISP might be able to kill Daily Kos, but a dozen smaller blogs will spring up to take their place.

Slowing down Daily Kos rather than blocking it doesn’t really change the analysis any. Such a tactic would likely be detected and spark a backlash long before it was severe enough to actually deter people from reading Daily Kos. And if they did drive readers away from Kos, it would be to other liberal blogs, not into Michelle Malkin’s waiting arms.

Theoretically, you could ban or slow down all blogs except for a selected list of preferred blogs. But even that’s not really feasible, because then you’d have to have some way of distinguishing blogs from other web sites. There are millions of web sites, and it takes a matter of days for a blog to set up shop at a new address. It would take a full-time staff of hundreds to monitor new websites and blacklist the ones that appeared too blog-like.

OK, what if the ISP banned all websites except for an approved list of non-political and conservative ones. Obviously, that would be commercial suicide. People sign up for Internet access primarily to access websites. If the majority of websites were banned (and even Comcast or AT&T can’t afford the staff it would take to do an in-depth review of every website on Earth) the ISP’s service would be dramatically less valuable, and so fewer consumers would sign up.

Benkler goes on to make an elaborate argument to the effeect that private ownership of communications infrastructure is dangerous because infrastructure owners will inevitably sell “autonomy exactions” to the highest bidder. But his argument is based on a set of assumptions, on closer examination, have little or nothing to do with the real world. When you take into account the actual characteristics of the Internet, Benkler’s argument doesn’t make much sense.

In short, a few minutes’ though makes it clear that bloggers have nothing to fear from an unregulated Internet. I don’t think ISPs even want to censor blogs, but even if they did, they would fail. And they’d do themselves a great deal of economic harm in the process. In short, blog manipulation or censorship isn’t a serious policy concern, it’s a talking point designed to scare people who haven’t given any serious thought to how the Internet works.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: