February 12, 2007
Access vs. Censorship, Part VI: Final Thoughts

This is the final part of a six-part series on public policy and the trouble the U.S. government has with balancing its role in providing access, on the one hand, and policing content on the other. The first five parts of this series are available here, here, here, here, and here.

Restricting access to content and censoring content ruled objectionable manages to protect public sensibilities and can be extremely popular politically, but the long-term value of such approaches are harder to ascertain. As boyd points out, initiatives like DOPA do very little, if anything, to eliminate underlying problems and instead restrict the many positive uses of these technologies. Rather than providing new forms of access, these initiatives place broad restrictions on how these technologies are used. Overall, the greater public good seems to come along with a high prioritization to making as many people as possible involved in communicating using these new technologies.

In Henry Jenkins' and David Thorburn's book Democracy and New Media, cyberspace scholar Douglas Schuler writes that "the key to the goal of democratizing cyberspace is not to cling blindly to simplistic technocratic or libertarian platitudes," an important point in trying to decide how for Congress to best spend the next two years in forming public policy on regulating the mass media. This line of action, focusing on increasing access as opposed to restricting it, is emphasized here because of the greater foreseeable benefit of putting resources behind issues of access instead of holding solely to political philosophy. A pragmatic approach of utilitarianism emphasizes putting resources behind projects that stand to make a real difference rather than debates that lead to continued inaction.
These contemporary pieces of legislation about net neutrality and DOPA are far from the only current examples of struggles between the perspectives of free access and governmental restriction. Certainly last year's increase of the indecency fine regulated by the Federal Communications Commission appears alongside debates about how to help the industry make the conversion from analog to digital transmission, while the desire to tax online worlds is balanced with continued initiatives from both governmental and citizen groups to bridge the "digital divide." In short, the government's role in the industries of multiple media forms is constantly being balanced in this scale of access versus restriction.

By prioritizing a focus on access over the regulation of content, the government can set more clear priorities in how to manage future policymaking in regard to the mass media industries. Much of the governmental focus toward restricting offensive content or undesirable forms of communication have resulted in either the use of significant governmental resources while leading to no action, in the case of various subcommittees and commissioned panels that react to current public offenses but lead to no sustainable action, or else in proposed legislation that becomes so overarching that it restricts more modes of communication that have positive benefits for American citizens, in an effort to target a few isolated dangers. In Technologies of Freedom, Ithiel de Sola Pool's point that "it is not computers but policy that threatens freedom," made in 1983, remains sadly still appropriate. Conversely, putting significant resources behind increasing access to new technologies only has continued positive benefits for the country as a whole and the long-term viability of a capitalist society, despite potential setbacks for particular businesses in the process.

When weighing conflicting forms of legislation, such as the current drives both for net neutrality and the issues raised by DOPA, Congress would be best served by prioritizing more universal access while only looking at restriction in the most narrow sense, depicting the government as a referee rather than a regulator, an entity which encourages as equal an opportunity as possible for everyone and only restricts communication in cases in which the danger is so clear that there is little doubt as to the need for governmental intrusion. Subsequently, by encouraging initiatives that address neutral access to content or bridging the digital divide, the government ensures a greater diversity of voices, and content choices, for Americans, providing more market-driven choices that avoid the government "throwing the baby out with the bathwater," with bills like DOPA. Media literacy efforts, more safe havens for Internet access for teens, and other initiatives that free constraints on access are more likely to restrict the power of online predators or encourage ways to avoid undesirable content than wasting resources on futile attempts to inhibit the spread of these activities.

Bottom Line: If the current U.S. Congress can decisively formulate a prioritization on encouraging access over restricting undesirable content, the government will be able to most efficiently move governmental policy forward in regard to mediating the accelerating pace of technological change over the next two years.