Shutting Down Free Speech
By: Mark Hyman
Popular speech and political dissent have proved troublesome to President Barack Obama since the very beginning of his term in office. The Obama Administration began waging war on the minority of media outlets that did not worship at his altar immediately after he was sworn in. Just three days into his presidency Obama warned Congressional Republicans against listening to radio host Rush Limbaugh.
In April, Obama responded to a sycophantic question from CBS news anchor Harry Smith by falsely claiming Limbaugh and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck labeled Obama a “Nazi.” Obama responded by identifying as “troublesome” “this kind of vitriol.”
During the intervening 15 months, White House officials attempted to marginalize balanced news outlets such as the Fox News Channel by enlisting the support of the heretofore compliant news media. Fortunately, competing news outlets found the backbone — if only temporarily — to put the kibosh on Obama’s attempts to blacklist FNC from the White House press pool.
These heavy-handed actions, as well as worries about the Obama Administration reinstituting the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” for talk radio are small time when one considers what the government is capable of accomplishing if a handful of current proposals are enacted.
First is the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan. There is an overabundance of big government programs contained in the plan for Americans to dislike. These range from having taxpayers fund broadband as a universal service to developing a process by which outside entities — including the government — can monitor how Americans use energy at home, just to name a few.
The NBP also proposes the FCC recapture nearly half of the radio spectrum used by today’s 1,600 broadcast TV stations — involuntarily, if need be — and designate it for broadband services. The FCC identifies the swath of spectrum that is ideal for the latest wireless services as that which falls between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz.
TV broadcasters occupy only five per cent of that spectrum with other actors — including the government — sitting on much larger chunks of spectrum, some of which lies fallow. Even Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, whose company would likely be the single biggest beneficiary of the National Broadband Plan, found the FCC’s “looming spectrum shortage” claims to not be credible.
“I don’t think the FCC should tinker with this,” Seidenberg told the Council on Foreign Relations in April. “I don’t think we’ll have a spectrum shortage the way [the National Broadband Plan] suggests we will.”
So why target broadcast spectrum?
The answer may lie in remarks made by confidantes to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. First, a few introductions are in order.
Fifteen years ago, Genachowski was senior policy advisor to then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. Hundt’s chief of staff at the time was Blair Levin. Now, flash forward. Hundt served as a senior member of the Obama transition team and he is in close communication with Genachowski. Levin chaired the NBP task force that reported to Genachowski. Small world, eh?
Speaking before a Columbia University audience in March, Hundt discussed the intent of the NBP. He informed his audience that the goal to disenfranchise — if not completely end — broadcasting was crafted during his FCC days. “This is a little naughty,” he offered as an example. “We delayed the transition to HDTV [high definition television] and fought a big battle against the whole idea.”
The drive to move news and information away from broadcast and similar platforms to broadband would change the paradigm of how content is created he explained. “[P]eople will be permitted to create audiences that demand content instead of waiting for content to pull them together to shape an audience [emphasis added].” Hundt did not elaborate on his remarks. However, he did admit that the NBP is a stark departure from the current way of delivering news and information.
“It has actually been an essential characteristic of the media in the United States that we have never had a plan [for communications and the media]. And we have felt that was in the nature of our democracy and our capitalism to not have a plan. It’s kind of interesting to think that we now we’re imitating China,” he observed.
Then in December 2009, Genachowski appointed Duke University law Professor Stuart Benjamin to his staff. Benjamin let on that his duties include advising Genachowski on radio spectrum use and First Amendment matters.
Benjamin has written many papers that include proposals to end broadcasting. In a 2009 paper he wrote, “Some [FCC] regulations that would be undesirable on their own will be desirable once we factor in the degree to which they will hasten the demise of over-the-air broadcasting.” Given his very influential position at the FCC, this is like the school principal trying to kill off all of the students.
Still, would moving all news, information and entertainment to the Internet be such a bad thing? It seems so. In prepared remarks before a February audience, Lawrence Strickling argued that the days of a “hands off” approach by the government toward the Internet are over. As the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Strickling is the principal advisor to the president on telecommunications and information policy.
“We need Internet Policy 3.0,” he argued, “â€¦ [because] we rely on the Internet for essential social purposes: health, energy, efficiency and education.” He added, “There [should] be rules or laws created to protect our interests.” Strickling was advocating for more than just the Obama administration’s proposed “net neutrality” rules for the Internet. He argues for government intervention to regulate content on the Internet.
Fortunately, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals stymied — at least temporarily — the FCC from imposing the Fairness Doctrine on the Internet when it struck down the FCC’s “net neutrality” tactics in the Comcast-BitTorrent case.
In response, the FCC is considering reclassifying the Internet by moving it from the lightly regulated Title I to the heavily regulated Title II section of the federal statute that governs the FCC’s activities. Title I prohibits the FCC from exercising considerable regulatory authority over information systems. In contrast, industries such as telephony that fall under Title II can be abused like a rented mule. And they are. Subjecting the Internet to the harsh regulatory environment of Title II is deeply disturbing. Only China would applaud the move.
There is still more trouble on the horizon in the form of a bill introduced by Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe last year. The innocuous sounding “Cybersecurity Act of 2009 (S.773)” is anything but innocuous.
There are several alarming provisions including a call to study “the feasibility of an identity management and authentication program.” In other words, a national digital ID program. There is also a requirement that certain information technology professionals be licensed by the federal government.
There are relatively few professions that require individuals to be licensed by the feds. So why license IT professionals? The cynic would argue that the easiest way to control the Internet is to control the IT personnel who manage the Internet.
Even more troublesome is the provision allowing the president to designate “nongovernmental information systems and networks” as “critical infrastructure systems and networks.” The president would have authority to disconnect these private systems “in the interest of national security.” Further, the president could “order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic” during an undefined “cybersecurity emergency.”
It would be much easier for a president to shut down the Internet than to turn-off 1,600 individual television transmitters and whose content is much more cumbersome to monitor.
For good measure S.773 allows the Commerce Secretary to “have access to all relevant data concerning [government and private] networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule or policy restricting such access.” Subpoenas, warrants, or court orders would be unnecessary if Uncle Sam wanted to peek at private IT system data.
All of the foregoing is enough to make one’s head spin. But the Obamunists are not through. In addition to its National Broadband Plan and “net neutrality” pronouncements, the FCC has dived headlong into another topic: manipulating news and information.
The Commission launched its “Future of the Media” effort earlier this year that falls not only well-outside its statutory charter, but happens to fall squarely inside Constitutional prohibitions firmly ensconced in the First Amendment. According to an FCC Public Notice, the project “will produce a report providing a clear, precise assessment of the current media landscape, analyze policy options and, as appropriate, make policy recommendations to the FCC, other government entities, and other parties.”
The Commission proposes to examine subject areas in which it has zero expertise including “business models and financial trends,” “journalism,” “[business] debt levels,” “news staffing,” and even the “newspapers and magazines” industry.
The project will also examine the roles and impact of schools and libraries, voter turnout, gaming systems, social media, “development of social capital,” and numerous other matters in which the FCC has absolutely no authority to snoop.
A former Newsweek reporter and current Senior Advisor to the FCC Chairman, Steve Waldman, is heading up the “Future of Media” project. He struggled to convince an audience at the National Press Club in April that the U.S. Post Office established the precedent of the government playing a major role in media. Waldman’s post office argument identically matches that of Mark Lloyd, the FCC’s Chief Diversity Officer and former fellow at the left-wing Center for American Progress. Prior to CAP, Lloyd ran a fringe media advocacy organization funded by George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
In his 2006 book Prologue to a Farce Lloyd wrote, “[M]y focus here is not freedom of speech or the press. This freedom is all too often an exaggeration.” He also argued, “the purpose of free speech is warped to protect global corporations and block rules that would promote democratic governance.” Lloyd finds the First Amendment an obstacle to what he believes are greater social goals that can be achieved only through government action. This attitude may explain why Lloyd has been an ardent cheerleader for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Two years ago, Lloyd stated, “In Venezuela, with Chavez, is really an incredible revolution — a democratic revolution. To begin to put in place things that are going to have an impact on the people of Venezuela.” Lloyd also commented that when independent media outlets criticized Chavez’s policies, the Venezuelan dictator “began to take very seriously the media in his country.” Lloyd’s comments came in the middle of Chavez’s two-year run of closing down nearly every single privately-owned media outlet in Venezuela, thereby ending all criticism of the government.
Mark Hyman is a commentator for Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group.