Regulate the internet

The internet is a big deal. It's time to treat it that way.

The World Wide Web.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Even though the motivations behind it are juvenile and paranoid, I cannot help but cheer for the bill introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and, of course, America's grandstander-in-chief, John McCain (R-Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood), to regulate the internet.

The bill, an admirably specific piece of proposed legislation in the era of Graham-Cassidy Part XVII, would require websites with more than 50 million annual unique visitors to disclose information related to advertising from any client spending more than $500. Among other things, the required data would include breakdowns of the groups purchasing the web space, the would-be audience, and facsimiles of the ads themselves. The paper trail showing who actually paid for a given ad campaign would have to be absolutely clear.

The senators in question are pushing this legislation because they would like to punish Facebook and Twitter for their supposed compliance in the rigging of the election by unnamed Russian agents sympathetic to the future President Trump. Some of us who think that retired Democrat voters in Youngstown, Ohio, have relatively little experience with "the Twitter" find it hard to swallow that it was Vladimir Putin's tech savvy, not Hillary Clinton's world-historic myopia, unlikability, and seeming lack of interest in the actual business of campaigning that cost her the election. For reasons that are mysterious to me, the party that once made a point of heaping scorn on even the most anodyne anti-Moscow statements made by Willard Romney when he was running for president are now the most dedicated foes of everything Russian since Roy Cohn. Their base would prefer to whine about Russia while looking forward to congratulating themselves on almost beating a guy who thinks sharia law holds sway over vast swathes of the American Midwest in November. You do you, Democrats.

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It doesn't matter. The truth is that regulating the internet more is something we should have done at least a decade ago. Why the World Wide Web is not treated the same way as radio or television and subject to similar disclosure rules and constraints on content is a bit mysterious, but it comes down largely to geriatric control of our governing institutions and the recalcitrance of the same tech tycoons who also go to virtually unlimited lengths to avoid paying workers a just wage or contributing their fair share of taxes. Radio has been under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission since 1934 and broadly regulated in ways that would be unthinkable online since 1927. Broadcast television has been under the thumb of the FCC since its inception, and non-basic cable channels have, at least by day and during primetime hours, largely toed the line set established for their predecessors.

The internet is not like books or films — or at least books and films in the pre-internet era — which must be tracked down by people who already have some idea of what they are looking for and if they are minors at least the tacit permission of their parents. Like television and radio, it is a fundamentally open and passive medium whose content, from Pat Boone's Wikipedia entry to hardcore pornography, is available instantly to anyone with a connection. As I write this at a friendly neighborhood coffee shop in the early afternoon, the only thing preventing the kindly-looking old gentleman sitting next to me from pulling up videos of octopuses raping Japanese schoolgirls is his decency and patriotism. Not everyone is so stalwart.

We don't, after all, allow this nonsense on network television or even basic cable. Only 13 years ago, a broadcast of what might in non-HD picture have for half a second looked not unlike the left — or was it the right? — nipple of the somewhat famous sister of the recording artist responsible for "Smooth Criminal" cost CBS some half a million dollars (though after spending rather more than that in legal fees the actual fines were eventually voided). Even HBO, a premium channel available only to those willing to purchase a moderately expensive subscription, draws the line very firmly at crossbow-point rape of teenagers, which is only implied by clever editing and not actually depicted. If only there were some mechanism requiring purveyors of online smut to abide by the same exacting standards of public morality!

There are plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with porn that make regulating the internet a good idea. The three most valuable publicly traded corporations in the world — Google, Apple, and Amazon — are tech companies. The internet is no longer some quaint hobby venture that delivers roleplaying content to a handful of engineering professors at community colleges or a Department of Defense side project of moderate expense and questionable viability. We read, write, communicate, research the fine art of potty-training, and buy our anniversary presents on the internet. Some people even think that when they die they will join it.

The present legislation is only the beginning of what one hopes will be a more expansive view of the role Congress has to play in internet-related policy making. It is a development that could have upsides even for knee-jerk defenders of the tech bros. There is, for example, absolutely no good reason that high-speed internet access should not be a free public service, as it is throughout — of all places — Marquette County in rural Michigan for anyone with a special Wi-Max card thanks to the ingenuity of (alas former) Rep. Bart Stupak (D).

The internet is, astonishingly, a big deal. It is time we started treating it that way.

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