Monday, October 17, 2005

The internet and the blogosphere have been a tremendous boon to liberty, permitting real-time information flows across the globe, increasing transparency and empowering the average citizen to speak out or even acquire real influence on the public issues of the day. The effects have sat poorly among some members of the elite, particularly in government and at major MSM institutions who enjoyed a preponderant influence in shaping opinion and setting the bounds of public discourse. Even at times dispensing disinformation with impunity.

Some of these folks would like that power back. They range from foreign governments that oppress their own citizens to MSM airheads who cannot stand the fact-checking and mockery from the common herd. They want to raise the barriers to entry again to circumscribe who can be heard.

Bruce Kesler has an excellent round-up of these would-be Oligarchs of Information in the Augusta Free Press:

"Return to pre-Internet journalism?

Guest View

Bruce Kesler

The Augusta Free Press

There are foreign and domestic movements afoot that may return journalism to its pre-Internet closedness. One would move control of the Internet to that bastion of freedom - for petty despots, that is - at the United Nations. The other would give the U.S. government the power to, in effect, license journalists.

Whether you are on the political left or right, or more likely just a news consumer who wants fuller information than provided by the mass media of your newspaper or TV network, your right to hear freedom of speech is at risk.

If not for the Internet's openness, you would probably not have heard about many criticisms of the government, its programs or leading political figures, or just have heard what certain media or political elites choose for you to hear. They may like that insulation from the light of truth. Would you?

It is only due to the Internet that opposing views may ever get heard - as in the Vietnam veterans' rebellion against John Kerry's false presentation of himself. It is only due to the Internet that the self-serving conduct by politicians gets unearthed, and they embarrassed, so quickly - as in the spending spree by the Republican Congress in the so-called Transportation Bill. It is only due to the Internet that the abuses of sanctimonious leading journalists gets exposed - as in Dan Rather's attempt to affect the 2004 election with false Bush military-service documents, or the hysteric misreporting of the causes and effects of Hurricane Katrina's impact.

If that's the situation in the United States, imagine what the Internet has meant to the struggle for freedom among those in China or Iran or Cuba or the kleptocracies in Africa. It's virtually the only way the oppressed have to get real news from outside, to break out of the solitary confinement imposed by their governments to become members of a global civilized society, to get out truth to their people, and to unleash the worst fear of their rulers - international opinion - and bring approbation on their depravities.

I wrote about one of the threats to the Internet, "U.S. versus E.U., China, Cuba, Iran on Internet Control":

"Let's hope John Bolton can scuttle this one. At the World Summit on the Information Society, the European Union has lined up with such stalwarts of smothering internet freedom as China, Cuba, Iran and several African states (in name only, these tribal kleptocracies) to carry to the U.N. their effort to take control of the Internet. ... (According to) Internet authority Milton Mueller: 'It's not clear to me that governments know what to do about anything at this stage apart from get in the way of things that other people do.' Like freedom of speech. This issue, this outrageous putsch attempt, deserves an uproar, heard around the world on the Internet." www.democracy-project.com/archives/001913.html.

Another blogger goes into much depth, including this key economic point: "It is on the basis of that 'full faith and confidence' in the system (of hands-off, efficient administration of the Internet by U.S. agencies) that vast information flows, often transacted by companies worth many billions of dollars, can occur on a routine basis." http://fallbackbelmont.blogspot.com/2005/10/battle-for-internet.html.

In another column, I wrote about the "Summit to Suppress Internet Freedom." Quoted is another important point. "Surrendering the Internet might also increase America's vulnerability to on-line security threats. It could be difficult to guard against cyber-terrorism or to pursue terrorists on-line. If the Internet were under the supervision of a body unsure of what terrorism is, but quite sure that it does not like the United States." www.democracy-project.com/archives/001894.html.

European bureaucrats in the mold of France's Chirac or now former-chancellor Schroeder fantasize that they can act out their faded glory by tearing down the U.S., regardless of its consequences on world order, security or prosperity, not to mention the stagnation of their own economies. The former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt (quoted at the above Belmont link), politely demurs: "It seems as if the European position has been hijacked by officials that have been driven by interests that should not be ours." Indeed, the interests, which are associated with the world's oppressors.

There are those in the United States who shamelessly profiteer at the expense of the oppressed. I wrote elsewhere that "Bubba Yahoos for yen, and doesn't 'feel your pain' " about former President Clinton's huge fee to speak at the 2005 China Internet Summit celebrating Yahoo's $1 billion investment there, but his failure to mention that Yahoo!, like Google, Cisco and Microsoft, have profited by aiding the Chinese rulers find, and imprison, Internet dissidents. www.democracy-project.com/archives/001848.html.

Human Rights Watch blisters such profiteering at the expense of suppressing freedom. "When companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google decide to put profits from their Chinese operations over the free exchange of information, they are helping to kill that dream." www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/HRW/d04f251c81860f30ccd515681ee41ab9.htm.

Closer to home, and just as much to be feared and condemned, is the move to, in effect, have the federal government license journalists and free speech.

Ryan Sager writes of the "Cybercrackdown" in The New York Post: "These folks, the ones who fought so hard for the McCain-Feingold law, believe that political speech on the Internet threatens the purged-of-money paradise they think they've created in the non-digital world - and they're willing to squelch the speech of every blogger in the land in their quest to tame the cyber-Wild West."

Sager continues: "The FEC (Federal Elections Commission) has ruled that big-media companies ... enjoy what's called a 'press exemption' from McCain-Feingold - allowing them to support or attack candidates without being prosecuted for making illegal corporate campaign contributions. But it has yet to grant any such protection to blogs and other Web sites not considered part of the traditional media. The 'cleanies' want to make sure they never get it. Thus, the country's leading campaign-finance-reform groups ... all recipients of millions of dollars from left-wing foundations - are lining up." www.nypost.com/postopinion/opedcolumnists/53480.htm.

The blog of former FEC attorney, Allison Hayward, is invaluable to tracking the twists and turns of this battle for freedom of speech, another example of how blogs are essential to pierce the miasma of government. (www.skepticseye.com) Ms. Hayward led me to this editorial in the Washington Times about "Suffocating the First Amendment."

The editorial quotes a leading blogger testifying before Congress: "Bloggers don't have influence because they start with large chunks of capital - in fact, most if not all start out as relatively lonely voices with tiny audiences. By delivering credible, interesting and valuable content, their audience and influence grows over time."

The editorial concludes: "In other words, blogging is an endeavor subject to the rules of the free market. Inside this unbridled exercise in free speech, the good rise to the top, while the hacks and frauds go ignored or quickly disappear ... applying McCain-Feingold to the Internet, even if diluted to protect bloggers, would mean that only millionnaires ... or those funded by them, could afford to start a blog. Everyone else, like those who pay nothing for a site at Blogger.com, would have to have some way of knowing if their blogging is violating the briar patch of campaign-finance laws which only lawyers know how to navigate." http://washingtontimes.com/op-ed/20051011-092709-1577r.htm.

On another front, establishment Sen. Richard Lugar has introduced a bill to provide a federal shield to journalists from having to reveal their sources. Most states have similar laws. However, federal courts are able to compel testimony in high crimes and national security cases. U.S. courts have not abused this ability, and the rights of U.S. citizens to their elemental safety does trump that of journalists to unrestrained anonymity of sources in exceptional cases.

Sen. Lugar's bill excludes bloggers from this federal shield, defining journalists as only those operating in the old ways of the mass media. Sen. Lugar admits "this is a special boon for reporters." However, as industry tradepaper Editor & Publisher observes, "some journalists oppose the popular federal shield proposal ... (because of) fear that giving Congress the power to define who is and isn't a journalist could lead effectively to the licensing of journalists." www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001263585.

Another blogger journalist, Roger Simon, points out that such as conservative Michael Barone and liberal David Corn publish in established magazines and also maintain widely read, influential blogs. Which of their reports are to be exempt? Simon asks, "Are they protected by the shield law when they are writing, say, for The Los Angeles Times, but not when they blog? Confusing, isn't it?" www.rogerlsimon.com/mt-archives/2005/10/lugar_luddite.php.

The Internet news report at CNET raises some other complications in interpreting such legislated definitions. (http://news.com.com/2061-10796_3-5892666.html) It is not possible for even the best of intentioned or best skilled government lawyer to accomplish other than enriching other lawyers at the cost of independent citizens.

The net result (pun intended) of these government attempts would place the freedom of speech of Internet bloggers outside the law, effectively outlawing bloggers and your right to know. Wouldn't that make our politicians more comfortable in their gerrymandered districts? Wouldn't that make other nations' rulers more comfortable in their tyrannies? Undue restrictions on freedom of speech serves imperious rulers, not citizens or democracy."

The admirable vigilance of Mr. Kesler is the price of liberty. We need to watch our Congressmen closely. Republican or Democrat, both kinds of elected officials are by definition insiders. Some of whom have forgotten where they came from and why they are there.

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