Books by Thierer, Adam D.

Anderson, Brian C. and Adam D. Thierer. A Manifesto for Media Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-228-8.
In the last decade, the explosive growth of the Internet has allowed a proliferation of sources of information and opinion unprecedented in the human experience. As humanity's first ever many-to-many mass medium, the Internet has essentially eliminated the barriers to entry for anybody who wishes to address an audience of any size in any medium whatsoever. What does it cost to start your own worldwide television or talk radio show? Nothing—and the more print-inclined can join the more than a hundred million blogs competing for the global audience's attention. In the United States, the decade prior to the great mass-market pile-on to the Internet saw an impressive (by pre-Internet standards) broadening of radio and television offerings as cable and satellite distribution removed the constraints of over-the-air bandwidth and limited transmission range, and abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” freed broadcasters to air political and religious programming of every kind.

Fervent believers in free speech found these developments exhilarating and, if they had any regrets, they were only that it didn't happen more quickly or go as far as it might. One of the most instructive lessons of this epoch has been that prominent among the malcontents of the new media age have been politicians who mouth their allegiance to free speech while trying to muzzle it, and legacy media outlets who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while trying to construe it as a privilege reserved for themselves, not a right to which the general populace is endowed as individuals.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, while technologists, entrepreneurs, and new media innovators strive to level the mass communication playing field, it's the politicians who make the laws and write the regulations under which everybody plays, and the legacy media which support politicians inclined to tilt the balance back in their favour, reversing (or at least slowing) the death spiral in their audience and revenue figures. This thin volume (just 128 pages: even the authors describe it as a “brief polemic”) sketches the four principal threats they see to the democratisation of speech we have enjoyed so far and hope to see broadened in unimagined ways in the future. Three have suitably Orwellian names: the “Fairness Doctrine” (content-based censorship of broadcast media), “Network Neutrality” (allowing the FCC's camel nose into the tent of the Internet, with who knows what consequences as Fox Charlie sweeps Internet traffic into the regulatory regime it used to stifle innovation in broadcasting for half a century), and “Campaign Finance Reform” (government regulation of political speech, often implemented in such a way as to protect incumbents from challengers and shut out insurgent political movements from access to the electorate). The fourth threat to new media is what the authors call “neophobia”: fear of the new. To the neophobe, the very fact of a medium's being innovative is presumptive proof that it is dangerous and should be subjected to regulation from which pre-existing media are exempt. Just look at the political entrepreneurs salivating over regulating video games, social networking sites, and even enforcing “balance” in blogs and Web news sources to see how powerful a force this is. And we have a venerable precedent in broadcasting being subjected, almost from its inception unto the present, to regulation unthinkable for print media.

The actual manifesto presented here occupies all of a page and a half, and can be summarised as “Don't touch! It's working fine and will evolve naturally to get better and better.” As I agree with that 100%, my quibbles with the book are entirely minor items of presentation and emphasis. The chapter on network neutrality doesn't completely close the sale, in my estimation, on how something as innocent-sounding as “no packet left behind” can open the door to intrusive content regulation of the Internet and the end of privacy, but then it's hard to explain concisely: when I tried five years ago, more than 25,000 words spilt onto the page. Also, perhaps because the authors' focus is on political speech, I think they've underestimated the extent to which, in regulation of the Internet, ginned up fear of what I call the unholy trinity: terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers, can be exploited by politicians to put in place content regulation which they can then turn to their own partisan advantage.

This is a timely book, especially for readers in the U.S., as the incoming government seems more inclined to these kinds of regulations than that it supplants. (I am on record as of July 10th, 2008, as predicting that an Obama administration would re-impose the “fairness doctrine”, enact “network neutrality”, and [an issue not given the attention I think it merits in this book] adopt “hate speech” legislation, all with the effect of stifling [mostly due to precautionary prior restraint] free speech in all new media.) For a work of advocacy, this book is way too expensive given its length: it would reach far more of the people who need to be apprised of these threats to their freedom of expression and to access to information were it available as an inexpensive paperback pamphlet or on-line download.

A podcast interview with one of the authors is available.

November 2008 Permalink