Earlier this month, President Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to unilaterally declare “net neutrality.” It would ensure a “free and open Internet,” he stated. “There should be no gatekeepers between you and your favorite online sites and services.”
Ironically, there has never been anything other than a free and open Internet. No one has ever proposed anything less –outside of President Obama’s own staff and Democratic academics who cover the telecommunications industry.
One example is Cass Sunstein, who President Obama appointed as the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs – or “regulatory czar.” Sunstein, who worked with the President as a law professor at the University of Chicago’s Law School, has written copiously about the need to regulate the Internet.
“Citizens are often aware that their private choices, under a system of limitless options, may lead in unfortunate directions, both for them as individuals and for society at large,” Sunstein wrote of the Internet in his book, Republic 2.0. One solution he proposed was forcing Websites to link to other Websites with which they disagreed.
How are the limitless options of the Internet leading us in an “unfortunate direction”? Ample academic literature provides insight into the mindset. In his book True Enough, journalistFarhad Manjoo summarizes one study conducted by Stanford Communications Chair Shanto Iyengar: “[Iyengar] discovered that Republicans were far friendlier to Fox than were Democrats to either CNN or NPR; Republicans showed, in other words, a much greater propensity toward giving in to their bias.”
Manjoo provided his own conclusion: “The greater Republican bias is in keeping with numerous psychological studies that show conservatives to be much more willing to consume media that toe the ideological line. This phenomenon… helps explain, in no small degree, the amazingly successful right-wing pundit factory.”
So they believe that too much access to information helps conservatives while hurting liberals. That is happening, these academics argue, only because liberals are too open-minded and conservatives are not. As liberals consume more conservative content, they too presumably become more conservative and less open-minded, and are trapped into the wrong set of ideas by the ruthless market of free speech enabled by the Internet.
Sunstein, Iyengar, Manjoo and others in the academic community do not view access to information as a positive thing for democracy. They believe that if government agencies do not filter the news that consumers see or read, they are not going to choose to consume the “correct” news.
The federal government has even allocated grant money to research how all of this subversive speech can be put down. The National Science Foundation, a federal agency whose mission is to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; and to secure the national defense,” gave $1 million to researchers at the University of Indiana to examine speech on Twitter.
Specifically, the researchers are looking at how to “mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.” So to assist in the preservation of open debate, the researchers are looking at how to put down what they deem subversive propaganda. By taking free speech away, they argue that we will actually have more of it – or at least more of the “right” kind of free speech and less of the “wrong” kind.
What qualifies as subversive? Like Manjoo and Iyengar, the Indiana team believes that the Internet has been polluted by too much conservative content. Ajit Pai, a member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on the topic last month. In it, he recounts a 2012 paper that the Indiana researchers had written in which they complained of a “highly-active, densely-interconnected constituency of right-leaning users using [Twitter] to further their political views.”
Net neutrality does not call for unfettered access to the Web so much as it calls for equal access. Equal access is worth little if it is simply an excuse for federal agencies to determine what consumers are permitted to read and believe.
No private providers have called for the censorship of political content on the Internet. A number of liberal academics have called for censorship, including President Obama’s own regulatory czar. If President Obama wants to protect freedom on the Internet, he should begin by keeping his associates away from it.