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Volume 19, Number 1 -- January 4, 2010

Mad Dog 21/21: If Trees Were Free, Would the Press Be?

Published: January 4, 2010

by Hesh Wiener

Cities that once had several newspapers now have just one, if any. Even the strongest of those remaining seem to be in grave danger. Their plight was a key theme of The Press a 1961 collection of A. J. Liebling's essays from the New Yorker. Liebling's love of newspapers was recalled by his widow, Jean Stafford, in 1975 as she introduced a third edition of the classic. Stafford is long gone, too, but Liebling's "wayward concubine" is still with us amid its lingering death. For the press, the future, if any, depends on American Internet policy.

Liebling's The Press: In this collection of New Yorker essays Liebling observes, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

The current situation is serious. Some of the Internet's founders, including Vint Cerf, who, along with Bob Kahn led the team that defined the TCP/IP protocol that is the backbone of the Internet, wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in October urging the adoption of policies that they believe would keep the Internet neutral. Neutrality, in this context, means that common carriers should not favor some parties using the Internet over others. The letter is particularly relevant now that the largest cable company in the United States, Comcast, is gaining control of a leading media content company, NBC. The letter from Cerf and his fellow pioneers is also an element in another controversy, the ongoing discussion of the vast power of Google, which is Cerf's meal ticket and, come to think of it, one of our meal tickets, too.

The role of search engines and that of content providers are difficult to differentiate these days. Google and its ilk offer comprehensive searches of news media, while news media on the Internet all offer one or more ways to search their own libraries as well as the Web at large. In the simpler days of the late Marshall McLuhan, even Woody Allen understood that sometimes the medium was the message. These days Woody Allen's wit has given way to the heady insights of Ted Nelson: The hypermedium is now the message.

Vinton Cerf: The complex and potentially conflicted Internet pioneer is an advocate of net neutrality and an employee of Google.

The threat to the neutrality of the Internet posed by communications carriers is so daunting that even the city council of a media burg governed by its richest citizen, a media mogul, has decided to get into the act. Gale Brewer, widely viewed as one of the brightest and hardest working members of New York's City Council, has joined the net neutrality fray. She has backed a resolution supporting a net neutrality bill called H.R. 3458 before Congress and, using the still wide open Internet, even got her staffers to build a blog to promote her position. The blog includes a facility that allows visitors to read and download her committee's resolution as well as a means for visitors to send their comments to the group Brewer chairs.

The New York resolution includes some of the ugly history of the 2002 attempt by the FCC to take away the neutrality that had been at the heart of Internet policy since the inception of the network. The FCC ended up before the Supreme Court and, to the dismay of neutrality advocates, prevailed. The result has been a substantial increase in the influence of the big regulated carriers--firms whose lobbying prowess is substantial--over Internet policy. Opponents of carriers like AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner, among others, companies like Google, may have a lot of social and economic clout, but when it comes to lobbying they are no match for the old hands in the carrier game.

One example of the brilliance of the carriers is the case they press for capping bandwidth. The carriers say that Internet sites that stream large volumes of data ought to be able to get, for a premium price, an advantage over smaller players. But on the Internet the smaller players include some of the most innovative, controversial, and unique Web sites. Because they are small and poor compared to the Web sites of entertainment empires and entrenched media, the upstarts are always at a disadvantage. From time to time, of course, a small site or a bit of content that originates in Podunk goes viral and gets a lot of attention. But that's the exception, not the rule.

Opponents of net neutrality resemble advocates of public transportation systems that have a fee-for-distance pricing scheme. Their pro-neutrality adversaries are akin to the advocates of flat-fee transit systems, such as the public subway and bus network of New York City. The flat-fee pricing concept is also at the heart of every great postal system.

Gale Brewer: A New York City Council member with a global technology outlook, is a potent proponent of net neutrality.

While the powers governing the public transit systems common to many great cities of Europe (and some not-so-great cities in the USA, too) believe in passengers paying for distance, their real message is this: People who commute from the far reaches of their transportation networks, usually districts that are less affluent than those in the center of town, are helpless; they ought to be penalized for their inability to pay for property closer to the heart of their cities. The message of this sort of system is discrimination. By contrast, the message of a single-fare system is unification.

Moreover, while it may seem on the surface that longer commutes on public transit systems cost the systems more, that may in fact not actually be the case. It might be that the resources used by a passenger taking a long ride on the New York subways or London Underground are actually the same as those used by a passenger riding only a few stops, or so close to the same that the huge differences in assessed fares are nothing less than highway or subway robbery. Yet even if the cost of moving a passenger an extra couple miles could be shown to greatly exceed that of moving a passenger a short distance, the important effects of a flat rate transit system are social and political. There is simply something wonderful about egalitarian exceptions to our world of far-too-carefully counted beans.

In the fast-receding past, when the press was literally what came off a printing press, not hard copy based on Internet publications, sometimes tarted up to to resemble the traditional newspapers of old, the concept of press freedom as embodied in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States was quite obviously affected by economic issues. "Freedom of the press," wrote Joe Liebling, "is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Liebling's aphorism was not meant to imply that a society that had free ink, paper, and printing machinery might be more free and democratic. Liebling was far to smart to say something so silly. It didn't take the advent of the blogosphere to demonstrate that the world has many more talkers than listeners. It's hardly a secret that blogs have the longevity of fruit flies and most of the time smaller brains. The exceptions in blogdom, like those in the news media, can be outstanding. Just about the only thing the relatively few great blogs have in common with the huge number of crappy ones is their Internet technology. But it is the availability of that technology that allows for the ingot under the dross.

Moreover, net neutrality, to the extent it exists here and now, fosters a range of publications that lie between the weakest blogs at one end of the spectrum and the great news institutions that justifiably inspire fear and respect. This publication is only one example of the fertile landscape opened by the Internet as created by pioneers like Vint Cerf and, one can only hope, preserved by the kind of laws that could arise from the bill backed by politicians like Gale Brewer, who understand that the survival of American influence depends on a varied, vigorous, and volatile press.


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