Do You Feel Like Being Regulated?

The Rasmussen Reports polling organization is out with the results of a new survey on Internet Harassment. They polled 1500 adults, which gives them a +/- 2.5% margin of error. Some of the answers are encouraging for those of us who consider the web an important part of our lives: 48% of the respondents say they use the internet every day, or nearly every day.

But there’s one answer that struck me as surprising and disturbing: when asked “Should the Federal Communication Commission regulate the internet like it does radio and television?,” 49% of the respondents said “yes.” 35% were against regulation, and 16% not sure. That adds up to a phenomenal number of my neighbors and yours coming down in favor of the government getting deeply involved with our means of work.It’s possible that those who said yes were primed by the first couple of questions in the survey, which asked about the MySpace harassment case in Missouri. Maybe people were just thinking that Lori Drew’s actions were so rotten that someone should have stopped her. But then again, maybe they really do think the internet is too wild and should be brought under control.

But what exactly would FCC regulation of the internet like radio and television mean? There are a ton of radio and television broadcast rules that the FCC enforces, starting with licensing of broadcasters. Are we supposed to get our web sites licensed? Would there be a list of words that you can’t say on the internet? Politeness police to cut down on cyber-bullying?

Traditionally, the justification for FCC regulation of radio and TV has been twofold. First, the airwaves encompass a limited range of radio frequencies, so the government takes a role in allocating this scarce good for the public benefit. Second, because broadcast radio and TV are “intrusive” technologies, there’s a public interest in regulating their content so that people are not forced to consume media they would rather avoid.

It’s difficult to see how either of these justifications could apply to a FCC internet regulation regime. Technology has successfully avoided any scarcity of web addresses so far, and with the availability of parental control and multiple competing sites for any interest the intrusiveness argument doesn’t hold much water either.

Fortunately for web workers, the US government’s interest in the internet so far seems to be centered on the net neutrality debate. Whatever our neighbors might think, neither the Congress nor the FCC has indicated any interest in extending radio- and TV-style rules to the internet. Which, for those of us who depend on a vast and growing variety of sites to do our work, is just as well.

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