Bill Clinton was interviewed on CNBC’s “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo” this past Friday and made a proposal which deserves some discussion; Bill Clinton is concerned with the sheer volume of rumor and misinformation which exists on the internet. This is indeed a problem that many of us have with the internet, particularly the ability of misinformation to be seen by some as fact simply by sheer volume. However Clinton has an innovative solution which is both naive and of great concern. He has prepossessed that the United Nations ideally, or the US government if the UN was unable to act, would set up an autonomous agency to combat internet misinformation.
Former President Bill Clinton Proposes a UN Internet Agenecy to Fight Misinformation
When I read about this in the Politico I took a double take to see if I in fact had read the article correctly. This was one of those articles which was even more concerning the more the magnitude and implications of the former president’s suggestion was considered. The mere existence of any government agency which had as its mandate to determine truth in what has become a global forum congers the image of third world dictators or the Chinese Communists who attempt to control what their people read on the internet. Clinton was vague as to the powers of this global internet cop, but even if it was just there to “correct” misinformation is beyond disturbing. He went to pains to say this agency must be run by an independent administrator who would be both respected and seen as independent from any government. Yet the concept of a government stepping into tell the media what it truth and what is misinformation is offensive in any democracy.
Of greatest concern is his proposal to have the United Nations be the “government” which would empower and manage this agency. The UN is not a government and lacks any authority to act as one. One of the most significant legal debates in the United States in recent years has been the relevance and authority of foreign legal positions on US law. Under our Constitution the answer would appear simple, there is in fact no role and the constitution itself is the highest legal authority in America. One cannot imagine any such agency surviving a judicial review as to its constitutionality under the first amendment. Freedom of speech, even offensive and questionable speech, is fundamental in any democracy, period.
Clinton’s proposal also displays his ignorance of the manner in which the internet operates. The Chinese Communists have been trying to control the ability of their citizens to access content critical of the regime or calling for democratic reform. As quickly as a barrier is put up, those seeking freedom find a way around the blockage. Indeed none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed efforts to help internet dissidents in China to break down the government’s “Great Firewall” several months ago. Attempting t block information on the interne t is like putting your figure in a Mississippi levy to stop the approaching flood. He also neglects the internets tendency to correct itself by the sheer volume of discussion and analysis by the many choices in existence. One need only look to the development of Wikipedia which has been manipulated with misinformation, yet over time it is corrected by the volume of contributors in a collaborative process.
What was in Clintons mind when he made this proposal is imposable to know but it must be taken very seriously by those who value freedom. Government censorship if a cancer on democracy and must be fought and defeated wherever it raises its ugly head. Furthermore the viewing of the United Nations as some form of Global Government is a concept which must be rejected in the most definitive way. If Bill Clinton truly meant this then he has taken a step in a direction which is dangerous to our very democracy.
As one whose political coming of age was during the 1980’s, a cornerstone to the foreign policy of the west as personified by Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher was the right of people to self determination. During the Cold war our focus was on those in Eastern Europe and Soviet regions such as the Baltic States. While the fall of the Soviet Empire brought freedom to much of Europe it was but a dream to a many people. In recent weeks we have seen the people of Egypt express their desire to live in a more open and representative state. While the role of the internet is wildly exaggerated by the media, there is no doubt that the ability of ideas to transcend boarders is a dramatic change in international politics. Additionally we are reminded that tyranny has not faded from the earth and regimes such as those in Mainland China continue to rule by the total suppression of free expression by their people.
With this in mind, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could receive no better compliment than the condemnations coming from the Chinese government over proposals outlined in her speech on Tuesday. In that speech Secretary Clinton proposed a $25 million program aimed at developing technology which would allow internet users around the world to circumvent attempts by government to block their citizens ability to access content on the internet. This is particularly disturbing to the Chinese as it potentially would circumvent their “Great Firewall”. Chinese foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu is quoted in the New York Times (2/17/2011) as saying “we are against any other countries using Internet freedom as a pretext for interfering in others’ internal affairs”. This has the same song we heard from Moscow over our Voice of America broadcasts in the 1980’s.
It would be naive to think internet freedom would lead to real political change and freedom in China. Any country willing to drive tanks over hundreds of their own citizens as the Communist rulers in China did in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As we have seen words and ideas have real power and people’s quest for freedom can over time prove unstoppable. There once was a time when American Foreign Policy was truly bipartisan and this is one proposal both parties should strongly support. There is no more challenging relationship facing the United States than China and we need to realize the long term threat they pose not only to the America but to freedom around the world. While this program is a small first step, it is a step in the right direction. With luck freedom just may break through the Great Firewall.
Today, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules on “network neutrality” along a straight party line vote. What in the world can be wrong with net neutrality, the requirement that all content on the internet be treated equally and none should be given preference? Doesn’t this sound like sound action in the best interest of the people on behalf of their government? Well not so fast. First let’s look at why the FCC took this action, which the congress has conspicuously not acted upon despite much debate, and what might happen if this regulation is allowed to stand.
By this regulation the FCC had given itself the power to take action against any traditional Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) in the event they provide any advantage to any specific content over another, or in extreme cases blocking certain content provided by competing creators. WOW, is this kind of manipulation actually going on? Well, to date there are not many instances of this type of tearing of content. The reality is consumers are offered many competing providers of internet services and means of connecting. Competitive pressures have effectively prevented ISP’s from denying content to their subscribers. If your ISP was blocking content you desired, wouldn’t you just dump them and access the internet through another means? So why the need for FCC action?
The FCC has to date failed to define for itself a role in regulating the internet. Now for any bureaucracy, failing to be central to life within its realm is unthinkable. This is made whole orders of magnitude worse when the area of human activity is the fastest growing element of modern society. Thus, the FCC has found its role. In doing so we may also have seen the future of the Obama Administration at work. For the past 2 years since he was inaugurated on January 20th 2009, the Obama administration has been frustrated in its ability to force through policies and regulations it has sought by its inability to get congressional action despite its party controlling both houses of congress by historically high margins. The results of the November Congressional elections provide little hope for the Administration to achieve its goals through legislative actions, so we have seen calls for the Administration to act by executive authority. It seems funny how such actions were decried by the left during the final years of the Bush Administration, but are now seen as virtuous and efficient means to an end. With this ruling we have seen a major intrusion of government into the private sector without any legislative authorization or authority. We should expect to see this modus operandi across the executive branch over the next couple years as the first term of the Obama Administration continues.
Still, why is this important to anyone and why should you care? Is the concept of Net Neutrality not a good one? Here is where unintended consequences take hold. Allowing the government to regulate the way in which ISP’s administer the flow of traffic on their systems will created a significant uncertainty to new investment. Creating the infrastructure which has enabled the explosion we have seen in internet use and penetration into our daily lives has not been without significant cost. Even if accessing the internet is for the most part free, operating it is not. By defining the relationship between users and suppliers, the FCC has created a significant potential deterrent to future investment in infrastructure expansion. Thus competition may well be reduced and development slowed. But of course the FCC has considered this, haven’t they? History has shown us government rarely has the vision or insight as to the future of any sector of our economy, let alone the internet to trust the future of the internet to this unelected administrative body.
In the end this is simply a government body forcing a solution to a problem which did not exist and in doing so inserting itself squarely in the middle of the one part of our economy which appears to be doing just fine thank you. It seems the message the internet community from the FCC is “we are from the Federal Government and we are here to help”. Somehow I am not reassured.