At the dawn of the Internet Era, when we were still filled with hope for a “citizens’ media,” I, like so many other wishful-thinkers, believed that the barriers to media access were about to fall, and that we were on the precipice of a new era of democratic media where even the quietest of voices is heard.
With the promise of a new media landscape yet unsullied, I wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal arguing against re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine, which had been in effect from 1949 until the Reagan Administration’s FCC overturned it in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine demanded broadcasters present the controversial issues of the day and make certain both sides were fairly accounted for. The intent was to limit the “share-of-voice,” or influence, of any single entity. The doctrine existed because to quell technical interference on the airwaves, the number of broadcasters had to be limited. In addition to airing both sides of an argument, the number of stations a given company could own was limited to seven TV’s, seven FM’s and seven AM’s. With non-over-the-air media multiplying on cable, and the internet, I wrote that such regulation was outdated, and that the market would act as its own regulator, protecting the ability of nearly everyone to express their diverse opinions. Consumed by the mirage of equally powerful voices from all sides contributing to an open market of ideas, I advised against government intrusion.
My opinion caused a stir in progressive circles because I had some liberal cachet as the creator of Air America Radio, the ultimately failed entity that nonetheless brought Rachel Maddow and Marc Maron to prominence, and lent a serious patina to humor author and SNL alum, Al Franken, who was Senate-bound.
It is now clear that I was wrong. My optimism regarding peoples’ ability and desire to do the right thing was grossly misplaced. The old adage is correct: experience is a dear school and a fool will learn and no other.
I am that fool.
The argument for regulating broadcasters is that in exchange for a free ride on the publicly-owned airwaves, they should have to act in the public interest. The argument against regulating the internet, and social media by extension, is that the information there is conveyed not on the public airwaves, but on private networks.
But many private industries are regulated in the public interest. They include automobile safety mandates like seatbelts and airbags, and air-safety rules that apply both to aircraft manufacturers and airlines. There are rules governing private financial transactions and mine-safety alike. We decided as a society long ago that rules ensuring safety and security are more important than the right to earn a profit.
As ownership consolidation has greatly increased companies’ share-of-voice in virtually every television market and reduced the existence of multiple takes on local news, it has become clear to me that we must re-impose the Fairness Doctrine on the handful of operators that are left.
In addition to mandating that licensees who enjoy operating for-profit businesses over the public airwaves guarantee equal access and a fair representation of all sides of a civic argument, we need to regulate internet providers and social media companies because they have become huge conduits for unscrupulous foreign and domestic agents of chaos. So while reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is important, it is not enough, because new media has so few barriers to entry, it is subject to every bad actor with a modem and every company with a personal data-vacuum. Between them, they’ve rendered the internet and social media unsafe and unscrupulous.
After years of denying that they are media companies, Facebook and its cohorts have now acknowledged the obvious: they are the biggest ones in the world. Vicious conspiracy theories intended to divide us, bullying, and the unregulated gathering of our personal data for resale mean that guard rails must be installed.
This is our fire-in-a-crowded-theater moment.
Americans are fanatics for fair play, but we are under no obligation to allow sophisticated algorithms and black-hat hackers to hijack the national conversation in ways that fit their narrow and destructive objectives, nor should we have to be the unwitting providers of vast troves of lucrative personal data. A new regulatory structure must be imposed if our democracy is to fulfill the Founders’ demand of an informed citizenry lest the profiteers, the Russians, and the Alex Joneses of the world prevail.
There is a move afoot to create an Internet Bill of Rights. The idea is to protect user’s privacy and data. That process has to start now, for just as the best time to plant a shade tree is twenty years ago, the second best time to start devising these regulations is now.