“The End of Censorship” — The book I never finished

by on January 22, 2008 · 5 comments

Back in 2005, I threw away a book I was writing. Well, I didn’t exactly toss it in a garbage can or take a match to the manuscript; I just abandoned the project to work on other things, including a different book and a big law review article. I’m still mad at myself for never finishing it up because I think it put forward a provocative thesis: Censorship is dead. Specifically, as I argued in the first lines of the book, “A confluence of social, legal and, most importantly, technological developments is slowly undermining the ability of legislators and regulators, at all levels of government, to control the nature or quality of speech or media programming.” Accordingly, the running title for the book was: “The End of Censorship?: The Future of Content Controls in a World of Media Convergence.”

Anyway, I recently unearthed an old draft of this discarded manuscript and thought I might as well at least throw the introduction online. In it, I outline my thesis and the “5 Reasons Content Controls Will Break Down.” I also highlight how governments will fight back and discuss what alternatives are out there to address concerns about objectionable content. Someone out there might be interested in all this even though much of what I say here is now widely accepted or been said better by others. I’ve stripped out all the footnotes and cut out significant sections to make what follows more readable. So, here it goes…

“The End of Censorship? The Future of Content Controls in a World of Media Convergence.”

Content regulation–at least as it has been traditionally defined and enforced in the United States–is doomed. A confluence of social, legal and, most importantly, technological developments is slowly undermining the ability of legislators and regulators, at all levels of government, to control the nature or quality of speech or media programming. Specifically, it is the distribution channel-based system of content regulation employed in the U.S. and many other nations that is breaking down. That is, the ability of governments to regulate speech and expression by regulating its distribution channel or provider (such as broadcasting), represents in increasingly ineffective and illogical method of policing content flows.

The demise of traditional content controls may take many years–potentially even decades–to play out, but signs of the impending death of the old regulatory regime are already evident.

For example, we know the old regulatory regime is in trouble when consumers can use a device such as the Sony PlayStation Portable not just to play games and watch movies, but also to surf the Internet, e-mail or instant message friends, download music and videos, and even watch live TV. Similarly, Apple’s wildly popular iPod, which can be used to enjoy music and video anywhere consumers wish, has spawned a whole new world of mobile media opportunities and imitators. And in late 2005, TiVo announced it would be making its popular video “space-shifting” services available through both iPods and PlayStation Portables, meaning that almost any piece of televised video content will also be accessible over those (and other) devices in the future.

And technologies like the PlayStation Portable, the iPod and TiVo are just the tip of the iceberg. Just as wireless technologies have revolutionized the telecommunications sector, in a few years, most consumers will own some sort of mobile media gadget (probably several) that enables “anywhere, anytime” media consumption. This book will document countless other technologies and services that are currently undermining traditional content control regimes.

Importantly, content controls can be broadly defined to not only include the regulation of “objectionable” content (whatever that might include), but also the promotion of so-called “public interest” content or other media quality objectives. Examples would include children’s television programming mandates, free airtime for politicians, “must-carry” mandates, and “PEG” (public, educational, and governmental) access requirements. Such content controls are also doomed. Whether government is regulating with the intention of repressing or promoting specific viewpoints or content it makes little difference; both types of controls are being rapidly undermined by new marketplace developments and realities.

These developments are the inevitable outgrowth of the relentless pace of technological and social change and that society will need to adapt to these changes very quickly because there is no reversing these trends. For millions of parents like me, this will mean we will need to find methods of countering the problems that technology has created in terms of offering us abundant and ubiquitous media options. Parents will need to harness other technologies and services to control their children’s access to objectionable programming or lead them to the sort of programming they want them to consume. While that sounds like a formidable challenge, the good news is that there is more enriching and educational fare available today than ever before, and more ways for parents to filter access to the objectionable content they do not want their children to see or hear. Admittedly, however, the challenge of controlling access to unwanted content will be great, and parents will have to be more vigilant than ever.

Many policymakers and pro-regulatory special interest groups will dwell on the types of content that they find distasteful and continue to advocate a generous role for government as protector of morality, taste and “quality” programming. But this is fool’s errand. In our modern world of media abundance, rapid proliferation of distribution outlets, the digitization of all information, and relentless technological change and convergence, there is simply no way that government can effectively control information and content flows absent extreme measures.

From Information Poverty to Information Abundance
To understand why traditional content controls are doomed, it’s necessary to step back and take stock of just how far we’ve come in recent decades in terms of media and information diffusion.

[Note: At this point in the narrative, I spent a few pages illustrating exactly how much better off society is today than ever before in terms of the abundance of information and entertainment at our collective disposal. But then I pointed out that…]

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. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the debate over the regulation of “indecent” content on television, radio, cable or the Internet. This is not a new debate, of course. The impulse to control content is 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.

In the wake of a handful of high-profile incidents on broadcast television and radio over the past few years, a significant new regulatory push has been underway in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Critics aim to crack down on indecency on broadcast radio and TV. The regulation of “excessive violence” is also a commonly stated goal of these regulatory advocates. Such efforts to regulate violence in media are based on many of the same theories or arguments as indecency regulation.

Importantly, many of the latest regulatory proposals would expand media regulation in significant new ways, not only for over-the-air broadcast licensees, but also for subscription-based outlets such as cable and satellite networks. This would be the case even though recent First Amendment judicial decisions dealing with new media outlets, namely the Internet and video games, are pushing in the opposite direction. The courts have held that attempts to regulate content on the Internet, or violence in video games, are unconstitutional burdens on freedom of speech and expression.

The 5 Reasons Traditional Content Controls Will Break Down
Thus, America’s media policy is now stuck in a jurisprudential Twilight Zone. Speakers using the Internet or print outlets (i.e., newspapers and magazines) are guaranteed the gold standard of First Amendment protection, while those using broadcast radio and television to speak are only accorded the equivalent of second-class free speech rights. Meanwhile, cable and satellite speakers are caught somewhere in the middle with the courts generally granting them more freedom than broadcasters, but not as much as speakers using the Internet or newspapers. And it remains to be seen how emerging media technologies and outlets will be classified.

As the authors of one popular communications law book note: “The central problem is that communications law has always been based on different rules for different media—different regulations, different jurisdictions, even… different levels of First Amendment protection. Unfortunately, this no longer reflects technological reality.” (Carter, Dee, and Zuckman, Mass Communications Law, 2000) Indeed, this current distribution channel-based legal arrangement is unjust, indefensible, and ultimately unsustainable for five reasons:

(1) Convergence: A jurisprudence so radically divided cannot stand in an age of rapid technological convergence. Media content and outlets are blurring together today thanks to the rise of myriad new technologies and competitors. These new media technologies and competitors generally ignore or reject the distribution-based distinctions and limitations of the past. In other words, convergence means that media content is increasingly being “unbundled” from its traditional distribution platforms and finding many paths to the consumers.
As a result of these developments, it is now possible to consume to the same piece of content via a broadcast TV or radio station, a cable channel, a satellite system, on a DVD player, on a cell phone or mobile media device, on a portable gaming system, or over the Internet. In this “multiplatform” environment, consumers can increasingly dictate when, where and how they consume media content. “For us, multiplatform is more than the buzzword of the day,” says MTV President Christina Norman. “It is the way this audience lives.” Thus, contrary to the famous assertion of media analyst Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message,” today the medium is just another medium or distribution path; it is the message (or content in general) that is now truly king.

Thus, convergence will make it increasingly complicated and intrusive for lawmakers to apply old media standards and regulations to newer technologies and outlets. “The phenomenon of convergence has… rendered obsolete a regime in which differential content regulation is applied based on the technology used to deliver content,” argued Jeff Eisenach and Randolph May of the Progress & Freedom Foundation in 2000.

The following examples illustrate how convergence renders the old regime obsolete as Eisenach and May suggest. In March 2006, following an FCC decision to impose steep new indecency fines on certain broadcast television shows, the WB Network decided to self-censor several scenes from a new drama that was about to air on its broadcast television affiliates. The network was concerned that it might be subjected to fines for airing the new show without certain edits. But before they aired the edited pilot episode on their WB broadcast television outlets, the network decided to air the unedited version on their Internet website. According to the New York Times, “It [was] the first time a network has offered on another outlet an uncut version of a program it has been forced to censor.”

But this won’t be the last time this happens in a world of proliferating media platforms and delivery options. Indeed, just a few months after WB took this step, CBS television network affiliates came under pressure from certain regulatory activist groups to self-censor or not air an award-winning documentary about the “9/11” terrorist attacks because it contained profanities uttered by firefighters or citizen under great duress. Several local CBS affiliates bowed to the pressure and decided not to air the documentary. But CBS Corp. responded by airing the entire unedited version of the documentary on its website so that consumers in areas where it had been blacked out could see it.

Opportunities for such cross-platform marketing are exploding. … [I then provided dozens of additional examples.]

In sum, because convergence is shattering the distribution-based business and regulatory distinctions of the past, it means that media regulation in general, and speech controls in particular, will be severely strained.

(2) Scale: Because technological and media convergence is now upon us, in the future, a regulatory attack on one type of media outlet or technology could be tantamount to an attack on all media. This is especially the case given the increasingly global scale of the Internet and modern media networks and digital communications technologies.

In the past, the reach of media was limited by geographic, technological, and cultural / language considerations. Today, by contrast, media can now flow across the globe at the click of a button because of the dramatic expansion of Internet access and broadband connectivity. While important cultural / language barriers remain, many traditional geographic and technological limitations are fading away. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues, the world is becoming more “flat” or interconnected.

Thus, the scale of modern digital media content and operations will greatly complicate government efforts to impose “community standards” on one type of content or distribution outlet given the borderless nature of most modern media. Nonetheless, lawmakers–local, national, and global–will almost certainly attempt to expand regulations (including content controls) to cover emerging media technologies and outlets as they become more popular. Lawmakers in the United States are already debating how to expand indecency controls to cable and satellite networks, for example. And policymakers in Europe, Canada and Australia are also grappling with this and proposing the expansion of traditional regulatory regimes to new technologies or providers.

(3) Volume: But as policymakers continue to push out the confines of traditional media / content regulation, the sheer volume of media activity that exists today will greatly complicate the task before them. In simple terms, there is just too much stuff for regulators to police today relative to the past. As a blue ribbon panel assembled by the National Research Council reported in 2002: “The volume of information on the Internet is so large–and changes so rapidly–that it is simply impractical for human beings to evaluate every discrete piece of information for inappropriateness.”

While it may have been possible to oversee a handful of TV and radio stations in each community or nation in the past, today’s electronic media universe is so diverse and enormous—and evolving so quickly—that content controls will gradually break down in light of the enforcement burden at hand. A few numbers regarding Internet growth and usage, in particular, can help put this “problem” into perspective:

[A half dozen factoids then followed documenting the growth of online activity.]

(4) User-Generated Content: Considering the relative youth of this new communications / entertainment medium, these are astonishing growth numbers. This explosive growth is a direct result of the seismic shifts underway in our new world of organic, bottom-up media creation—what Wired editor Chris Anderson refers to as “the Age of Peer Production”:

“The tools of production, from blogging to video-sharing, are fully democratized, and the engine for growth is the spare cycles, talent, and capacity of regular folks, who are, in the aggregate, creating a distributed labor force of unprecedented scale.”

In this new world in which every man, woman and child can be a one-person publishing house or self-broadcaster, restrictions on viewing, listening or downloading will be become increasingly difficult to devise and enforce. …

[Still more examples followed that illustrated how this trend was also undermining content control efforts.]

(5) The First Amendment: Given the problems of convergence, scale, volume, and the rise of user-generated content, regulators might react by simply sticking to the regulation of licensed electronic media providers, namely, television and radio broadcasters. After all, lawmakers already have a great deal of leverage over those media outlets and they might hope that by regulating them alone, a message will be sent to other media providers regarding what is acceptable content.

But that is a false hope. Traditional “free, over-the-air” broadcasting represents a steadily shrinking portion of our modern media universe. In recent years, the hegemony of the “big 3” television networks and the powerful local radio broadcast stations has been greatly eroded. Indeed, broadcasters are now struggling to adapt and survive in a world of media abundance and intense competition. Consequently, if regulators simply continue to regulate licensed broadcasters alone, it will simply accelerate the decline of broadcasting relative to its many new competitors. Asymmetrical regulation will be the death warrant for free, over-the-air broadcasting.

Eventually, the very existence of this asymmetry will force a major Supreme Court showdown testing the legitimacy of the bedrock cases upon which America’s broadcast content control regime rests: Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969) and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978). Red Lion held that broadcast television and radio could be regulated differently than traditional print outlets (newspapers and magazines) because broadcast outlets were more “scarce” than other media outlets and, therefore, required government licenses to operate. Consequently, speech controls were viewed as a natural outgrowth of government licensing and oversight responsibilities in the name of protecting “the public interest.” Pacifica held that broadcasters shouldn’t receive the same First Amendment protections as other media because broadcasting was more “pervasive” throughout society and also more “uniquely accessible” to children. To reiterate, these standards were only applied to broadcast radio and television, not print media and generally not cable or satellite.

There have always been serious intellectual deficiencies associated with the “scarcity” and “pervasiveness” rationales for America’s schizophrenic media policy. What is increasingly obvious to most observers, however, is that the Red Lion and Pacifica rationales for asymmetrical regulation will simply no longer work in the modern media environment. Red Lion’s “scarcity” rationale is now an absurd basis for regulation in light of the sheer volume of media at our disposal. And the problem with Pacifica’s “pervasiveness” standard as a regulatory rationale is that it proves too much; it could cover anything public officials deem to be widely available or “uniquely accessible” to children. (In terms of what children see or hear, is broadcasting really more pervasive than cable, cell phones, video games or the Internet today?) Moreover, although some lawmakers would like to make it so, the new regulatory calculus cannot magically become “popularity equals pervasiveness.” Merely because a given media outlet or technology gains more widespread use throughout society, it does not mean its First Amendment status should change. The courts will likely reject any effort by government to say that 51% market penetration results in diminished speech protection for a given media outlet or provider.

But one powerful rationale for the expansion of content controls remains: the “level playing field” argument. Many lawmakers, and potentially even some traditional broadcasters, will use “level playing field” arguments to justify the extension of the old regulatory regime to new media technologies–cable, satellite, cell phones, and the Internet–in the name of fairness. But, again, as these and other new technologies and outlets come to dominate America’s media landscape, lawmakers should reject the urge to impose old rules on new technologies and services. Already, the courts have firmly rejected the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 and subsequent efforts–both federal and state-based–to impose speech controls on the Net. As a result, the Internet now receives the same level of strict First Amendment scrutiny and protection as print outlets. In choosing how to level the regulatory playing field between print, the Net, cable, satellite, broadcasting and all other media, it should be done in the direction of greater freedom for all speakers, not less. Ironically, it was the FCC that most succinctly captured this principle when it decided to abandoned the so-called Fairness Doctrine in 1987:

[T]he role of the electronic press in our society is the same as that of the printed press. Both are sources of information and viewpoint. Accordingly, the reasons for proscribing government intrusion into the editorial discretion of print journalists provide the same basis for proscribing such interference into the editorial discretion of broadcast journalists. The First Amendment was adopted to protect the people not from journalists, but from government. It gives the people the right to receive ideas that are unfettered by government interference. We fail to see how that right changes when individuals choose to receive ideas from the electronic media instead of the print media. … First Amendment protections against content regulation should apply equally to the electronic and the printed press.

The FCC was right; the standard that governs print media should apply to all electronic / digital media as well. The fact that the Internet has already won significant judicial protection from legislative efforts to regulate online content indicates that the courts have already moved to adopt this position. It is increasingly unlikely that the courts will accept the extension of broadcast-era content regulations to new media outlets and technologies. The courts appear ready to apply stricter scrutiny to all speech controls in the future, especially since judges are not blind to the convergence and scale / volume problems outlined above. This is the “higher First Amendment standard” problem which all new content-related legislative and regulatory enactments will now face in America.

The Empire Strikes Back
Governments won’t give up, of course. As legal, technological and cultural changes continue to erode the effectiveness of the distribution-based regulatory methods of the past, governments will search for new ways to continue to exert control over content flows. But, as previously mentioned, it will likely take extreme measures by government to accomplish this task in the future. Two approaches deserve close consideration, and they are outlined succinctly in a new book by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu entitled Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World.

Goldsmith and Wu are proponents of what David Post has referred to as the “unexceptionalist” school of thinking about Internet governance and media regulation. Unexceptionalists believe that the problems created by the rise of the Internet and new digital media outlets and technologies are really not all that different than the problems lawmakers had to deal with before when the telegraph, telephone and television first appeared. “Exceptionalists,” by contrast, believe that the Internet and the many other new media technologies and developments really are quite different than previous technologies and pose a more formidable challenge to traditional legal arrangements.

While unexceptionists like Goldsmith and Wu often concede that the Internet and new media technologies present unique challenges, they argue that domestic and international legal systems can adapt to accommodate local preferences and respect territorial regulations, including content controls. At root, their argument is that we should never underestimate the power of state coercion to essentially beat people, companies and technologies into submission. Using various coercive powers, the state can contain speech flows even in our new multimedia, multiplatform world, they say.

But the two primary approaches they identify to accomplish this task are riddled with problems:

The “Great Wall” Approach: One obvious approach to controlling content flows is for government to control the underlying “means of production” and information dissemination. In today’s Internet world, that means government would seek to control of the routers, servers, and other computing or networking devices that constitute the heart of modern information infrastructure. This is the approach that more repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea and Iran have adopted to control “undesirable” information flows. Indeed, China’s highly restrictive system has been dubbed the “great firewall of China.”

But “great wall” regulatory solutions are almost completely untenable in more advanced economies since the information genie is already well out the bottle. In the United States and most European nations, for example, private ownership of means of information production is so diffuse and decentralized that it would be impossible for governments to gain control over the system and control information flows. Moreover, governments in democratic nations have a greater respect for the rule of law, property rights and various free speech values in more advance economies where the Internet has already taken root.

Thus, this solution is really only tenable in less developed economies that are just witnessing the sort of digital media renaissance we have seen in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Even in those countries that have adopted this approach, it is unlikely it is a workable solution well into the future. Networks expand. Technologies evolve. The “Net-izenry” (online population) grows. The scale and volume numbers cited above, while remarkable, only represent a trickle before the flood. Again, only 15 percent of the world’s population has found its way online so far. What happens when that number hits 25 percent, and then 50 and then 75+? And what happens as wireless and satellite-based technologies become even more advanced and every laptop and mobile media device on the planet offers wirelessly accessible Internet access? A recent story in The Washington Post noted how despite strict communications and media laws in Saudi Arabia—the country once sought to ban cell phone cameras—the youth of that country are finding ways around the restrictions:

“Cellphone technology is changing the way young people meet and date in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most insular, conservative and religiously strict societies in the world. Calls and texting—and more recently, Bluetooth—are breaking down age-old barriers and giving young men and women discreet new ways around the sentries of romance.”

The Washington Post now includes a section on its website called “Digital Revolution” that highlights stories “about high technology’s impact on politics, culture and society throughout the world.” And other tools of evasion are coming… [I went on to describe some of them]

The “Deputize the Middleman” (Secondary Liability) Approach: A more realistic solution discussed by Goldsmith and Wu that could be tapped by governments (including those in advanced economies) would involve stringent liability schemes for major communications / Internet intermediaries.

[I never finished this section up, and that’s too bad because this is exactly where the debate over content controls stands today. But, I had outlined that…]

There are serious dangers with this approach as well:

– over-reaching self-censorship
– significant costs for intermediaries
– creates incentive to move offshore or operate surreptitiously outside the confines of law using encryption, anonymizers, and host of other tools

[Note: My TLF colleague Jim Harper wrote an important essay on these issues: “Against ISP Liability,” Regulation, Spring 2005, pp. 30-33.]

The Challenge Ahead
If the thesis set forth here is valid and the days of traditional content controls are truly numbered, what happens next? Specifically, if government restrictions become largely ineffective or constitutionally impermissible, will parents or others be left powerless to stop what some believe is an onslaught of objectionable material?

This is reasonable concern. Like most parents, there are some types of content that I do not want my children to see or hear, especially at a very young age. And access to such materials is growing increasingly easy as children begin using communications technologies at earlier ages. Meanwhile, children continue to grow increasing technology-savvy. Since the rise of the personal computing in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s, there has been a running joke about how kids have to teach their parents and even teachers how to use these new digital tools.

No doubt, there is a great deal of truth in that notion. But does that mean children will be left on their own and expected to raise themselves in cyberspace? Are we facing a sort of “Lord of the Flies” scenario in which there are no constraints on what our children can do and they are left to enact rules of the road for themselves?

This seems to be the fear many parents and policymakers have today when they express frustration about what their children can see and hear in our media-saturated culture. To some, information abundance is a curse instead of a blessing; a problem to be dealt with, possibly even through extreme government measures such as “great wall” solutions or harsh liability sanctions like Goldsmith and Wu suggest.

But, again, any effort to deal with the “problem” of information abundance must begin with a realization that there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. As China and other repressive regimes are finding out today, once a sophisticated information infrastructure is in place, it is extremely difficult to stifle political dissent or even less threatening types of unfavored speech and expression. For more liberal regimes with fewer restrictions on human expression, there will still be social standards or cultural norms that are challenged by this modern multimedia universe. Some regimes or cultures will decry hate speech online. Others will lament sacrilegious cartoons. And for many others it will be various forms of pornography that spark official condemnation. In each case, these modes of speech or expression—offensive as they may be at times—will be impossible to eradicate from our new digital Information Society. Absent extreme measures, aimed at hobbling the sophisticated communications infrastructure that undergirds it, there will simply be no way of suppressing the flow of bits in our new digital, borderless, multimedia, multiplatform world.

The challenge that lies ahead, then, is for media companies, private organizations, family groups, educators and others to work together to devise reasonably workable solutions to the problem of underage access to objectionable content.

[Actually, it was at this point that I abandoned this manuscript entirely and set off to write the booklet that would answer those questions and concerns. It resulted in “Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods,” which I have discussed here many times before. In that report, I begin with the working assumption that content controls are in serious trouble and that parents and policy makers need to find constructive alternatives to traditional legal and regulatory tools. My book provides an exhaustive list of options and highlights the many tools and information that media companies and other organizations are providing parents to help them make media decisions for their families. However, I concluded my discarded manuscript by noting that…]

The traditional “mass media” era is coming to a close, however. An age of organic, bottom-up, collaborative, “we-dia” (We-Media) is now dawning. Who will play the “gatekeeper” role in this world of endless, instantaneous media creation? For example, in an online environment, parents have traditionally been concerned about what their children can download. Increasingly, however, it is what children can upload that is becoming a bigger problem. With the cost of computers, camcorders, digital cameras, cell phones, and Internet access all plummeting, the tools of information creation and dissemination are now within the reach of almost all citizens, including the youngest.

Clearly, this is not a problem that can be easily solved–if it can be solved at all–by public policy. In the end, for those parents who realize that information flows will be increasingly difficult to control, there is simply no substitute for talking to children in an open, loving and understanding fashion about the realities of this world, including the more distasteful bits.

[I had then planned to conclude the introductory chapter with a discussion of the importance of educational strategies, media literacy efforts, and parental empowerment tools and strategies that could help us address concerns about access to objectionable content as censorship efforts became increasingly less effective and largely faded away. Again, that’s when I diverted all my attention to detailing those things in my book on parental controls and online child protection. And so ends my story about the book I threw away!]

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