The Internet Is Not Radio

Justly or not, the US government's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asserts extraordinary control over speech in radio and television broadcasts. The Communications Decency Act clearly intends to extend the government's regulatory power to online communications: in particular, to the Internet.

But the Internet is not equivalent to radio or television! This is clear if you review the FCC's stated reasons for regulating otherwise protected speech in radio and television broadcasts:

"Children have access to radios and in many cases are unsupervised by parents."

This is a special concern of the FCC, with some reason. Radio receivers are cheap, easily concealed, and they work anywhere. Even when broadcast radio was in its infancy, a child could easily construct a simple radio for pennies. Many did.

To "receive" Internet transmissions, however, a child must obtain a computer and the necessary software, connect to a telephone line, and cross the password-protected threshold of a paid Internet subscription service. Children can be remarkably clever, but few could do all this without arousing a parent's notice at some point. Each stage of the process offers ample opportunity for parental supervision, guidance, and control.

"Radio receivers are in the home, a place where people's privacy interest is entitled to extra deference."

A radio receiver cannot enter the home uninvited, so this is not even a good reason to regulate radio (much less the Internet) except in light of the following:

"Unconsenting adults may tune in a station without any warning that offensive language is being or will be broadcast."

This key point highlights one way in which the Internet is much more like print media than radio. Radio is temporal throughout its fabric: each word exists only for an instant. Once a content advisory is missed, the listener cannot retrieve it or even know it existed. Internet communication, though often temporary, is monolithic in the sense that latter parts of a message are not displayed without the first part. Advisories, when present, cannot easily become detached from the related content.

In fact, the Internet permits extraordinary user-driven control of content. In a newspaper, readers can easily skim over and miss an advisory paragraph. On the Internet, however, users must usually make an active selection to display potentially offensive material. If that isn't sufficient, readily available programs, like Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny, and SurfWatch, let the user have all offensive material automatically excluded from display.

"There is a scarcity of spectrum space, the use of which the government must therefore license in the public interest."

Even if you can accept this as a reasonable excuse for censoring radio, it certainly does not apply to the Internet. As is proper, the only practical limitation to bandwidth on the Internet is the free-market force of supply and demand.

Visits to this page since 9 February 2002:
Original page established: 19 February 1996
Marcus Brooks -- 6 December 1998