|Craig Parshall, General Counsel|
January 5, 2011
“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any
Spectre I have seen. But as your purpose is to do me good, and
as I hope to live to be another Man from what I was, I am prepared
to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart.
Will you not speak to me?”
We are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ famous story, A Christmas Carol. It always seemed to me that it was that third ghost, the hooded grim reaper, who by means of his uncompromising images shown to Scrooge finally pushed the old miser into his final, moral repentance. But imagine for a moment that the censors slammed the book shut before Scrooge could get that final, full measure of truth. After all, aren’t such tales that are filled with warnings of death and judgment politically incorrect? Indeed, some modern commentators might even say that they are patently offensive to the 21st Century mind.
Fast forward to December 2010. Leave the printed page behind and shift gears to the new media technology. Enter the FCC. In the waning days before Christmas, the grim specter of censorship hung in the air as the Federal Communications Commission voted by a slim majority (3-2) to enforce a complex, yet viciously vague set of regulations to govern the Internet. I must admit, as I read the 89-page Report and Order “In the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet,” I had the sinking feeling that Dickens’ ghosts were about to be silenced; that despite the repeated assurances from those three, pro-web regulation Commissioners that these controversial rules were really for our own good – that the regulations would preserve “free expression” – in fact, the actual rules they have created provide a ghastly opportunity for anti-Christian censorship.
The regulations state that providers of Internet services can restrict, slow down, or even block any web content that they wish as long as they can argue that it constitutes “reasonable network management.” So, what does that mean? While the Commissioners waxed eloquently about such rarified concepts as “transparency,” and “end-user control” in their ruling, they gave only one single sentence regarding the possibility that citizens could have their free speech views censored over the web under these rules. The Commissioners stated that if an Internet provider discriminates, as an example, “by slowing traffic from a particular blog because the broadband provider disagrees with the blogger’s message,” well then, the FCC majority says, “we would be concerned….”
“Concerned?” Is that it? Exactly how “concerned” would the three FCC Commissioners be? We have no way of knowing. Their order provides little guidance and much confusion. In fact, they refuse to delineate exactly what will, or will not, constitute “reasonable” actions of censorship by providers of Internet service, choosing instead to decide such matters “on a case-by-case basis, as complaints…arise.” I wouldn’t be so mistrustful of the FCC’s ruling, except
there are too many signposts littering the current cultural landscape, too many warnings letting us know of the pressures that will most certainly be brought to bear, attempting to censor Bible-based opinions off the Internet and off web-based platforms. Right now a clever video on YouTube is lampooning Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, depicting him as the dark lord of censorship for recently removing a Christian-based Manhattan Declaration off his company’s iPhone apps because of its biblical message. Because of this and similar threats, we have created the John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech in an effort to stop this push for blatant anti-Christian discrimination. Yet the irony is, that although John Milton, the 17th century poet and apologist for a Christian viewpoint, is the one who made the historic argument against tyrannical government censorship, those pundits who applaud him are the very same ones who seem to be saying that a little politically correct censorship might not be a bad thing after all. This week’s New York Times op-ed by law professor Stanley Fish, who takes the time to give a minor salute to Milton, nevertheless suggests that some of the opinions floating on the Internet need to be drained off, because we really can’t trust the truth to win out in the marketplace of ideas after all. In other words, viewpoints need to be managed on communications platforms. And carefully.
In the wake of the passage of federal hate crimes providing legal protection for sexual orientation and all of its variations, and Congress’ vote just before Christmas to strike down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” do we really believe that in this political climate the FCC will not be lobbied to permit some form of anti-Christian censorship by Internet service providers regarding gay rights issues? On that score, I can only second Tiny Tim’s benediction, and prefer to make it a prayer: God bless us, every one.