Tag: censorship

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

Stall Brook Elementary School, outside Boston, recently told parents that they were editing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” for an upcoming student assembly, and that their children would instead sing it as “We Love the U.S.A.” A furor ensued, and it wasn’t over the loss of assonance in the refrain. After a great sound and fury the school has relented and will allow, but not require, children to sing the words “God Bless.” Other children and parents, it seems, will be free to sing “We Love” if they prefer. So that will sound nice.

This captures, in small, a great problem with public schooling: compelled conformity. In every community in the country, there is only one public school district. It is the official education organ of the state. As such, it cannot engage in devotional religious activities under the First Amendment. More than that, it cannot possibly reflect the diverse values and preferences of every family. It just can’t. And that’s why we encounter these endless battles over the place of religion in the classroom and in plays, pageants, and ceremonies. It’s why the teaching of history and even of reading and math are fraught with conflicts over content or methodology. And it’s unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

A truly free society needs a well-educated citizenry. It does not need a government monopoly on k-12 schooling. In fact, it needs to not have a government monopoly on schooling. Fortunately, there is a wonderful alternative to the monopoly status quo—a system that can ensure universal access to a quality education without forcing parents or taxpayers to violate their convictions. That alternative is education tax credit programs that cut taxes on families who pay for their own children’s education and on donations to nonprofits that subsidize tuition for the poor. These programs exist, they work, and they won’t make us fight over blessing or loving the U.S.A.

The Internet Is Not .gov’s to Regulate

Imagine that Congress passed a law setting up a procedure that could require ordinary citizens like you to remove telephone numbers from your phone book or from the “contacts” list in your phone. What about a policy that cut off the phone lines to an entire building because some of its tenants used the phone to plot thefts or fraud? Would it be okay with you if the user of the numbers coming out of your phone records or the tenants of the cut-off building had been adjudged “rogue” users of the phone?

Cutting off phone lines is the closest familiar parallel to what Congress is considering in two bills nicknamed “SOPA” and “PIPA”—the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “PROTECT IP Act.”

Julian Sanchez has vigorously argued several points about these bills. Here, I’ll try to describe what they try to do to the Internet.

Simplifying, every computer and server has an IP (or “Internet Protocol”) address, which is a set of numbers that uniquely identify its location on the Internet. The IP address for the server hosting Cato’s Spanish language site, elcato.org, for example, is 67.192.234.234.

Now, these numbers are hard to remember, so there is a system that translates IP addresses into something more familiar. That’s the domain name system, or “DNS.” The domain name system takes the memorable name that you type into the address bar of your computer, such as elcato.org, and it looks up the IP address so you can be forwarded along to the IP address of your choice.

One of the major ideas behind SOPA and PIPA is to cut Internet sites that violate copyright out of the domain name system. No longer could typing “elcato.org” get you to the Web site you wanted to visit. Much of the debate has been about the legal process for determining whether to strike out a domain name.

But preventing a domain name lookup doesn’t take the site off the Internet. It just makes it slightly harder to access. You can prove it to yourself right now by copying “67.192.234.234” (without the quotes) and plugging it into your address bar. (The Internet is complicated. Some of you might be directed to other Cato sites.) Then come back here and read on, por favor!

The government would require law-abiding citizens to “black out” phone numbers—or Internet service providers to do the same with domain names—for this little effect on wrongdoing? It doesn’t make sense. The practical burdens on the law-abiding Internet service provider would be large. “Blacking out” an entire building—just like a Web site—would cut off the lawful communications right along with the unlawful ones. It’s through-the-looking-glass information control, with enormous potential to obstruct entirely lawful communications and impinge on First Amendment rights.

Which is why many Web sites today are “blacking out” in protest. In various ways, sites like Craigslist.org, Wikipedia, and many others are signaling to their visitors that Congress is threatening the core functioning of the Internet with bills like SOPA and PIPA. And threatening all of our freedom to communicate.

The Internet is not the government’s to regulate. It is an agreement on a set of protocols—a language that computers use to talk to one another. That language is the envelope in which our communications—our First-Amendment-protected speech—travels in hundreds of different forms.

The Internet community is growing in power. (Let’s not be triumphal—government authorities will use every wile to maintain control.) Hopefully the people who get engaged to fight SOPA and PIPA will recognize the many ways that the government regulates and limits information flows through technical means. The federal government exercises tight control over electromagnetic spectrum, for example, and it claims authority to impose public-utility-style regulation of Internet service provision in the name of “net neutrality.”

Under the better view—the view of freedom behind opposition to SOPA and PIPA—these things are not the government’s to regulate.

The FCC Should Not Regulate the Internet

The FCC moves forward with a proposal to regulate Internet service today. It’s a bad idea.

The one thing that pleases me about the ongoing debate over Internet regulation is the durability of Tim Lee’s November, 2008 Cato Policy Analysis, “The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality without Regulation.” My introduction of it is a good synopsis.

The arguments against government regulation in the name of “net neutrality” have not changed: A good engineering principle is not made better if dogmatized and given to lawyers and bureaucrats to enforce as law. The FCC and its regulatory regime are almost sure to be captured by major ISPs and turned to their benefit, used to suppress competition and blunt innovation.

A premise of net neutrality regulation—and much other regulation—is that consumers can’t be relied on to defend their own interests. Taking that premise, which I don’t, it follows that regulators must step in. But that syllogism skips over an additional premise: that regulators can do a better job.

The Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy) recently published a terrific paper by Slavisa Tasic (a former Cato intern) that applies the insights of behavioral economics to regulators. Academics have typically used behavioral economics to illustrate the fallibility of market actors, but Tasic turns the tables. The paper is called “Are Regulators Rational?”, and it examines the cognitive biases that are likely to produce flawed decision-making on the part of regulators.

Yes, it’s tit-for-tat to the attack on markets implicit in behavioral economics, but it’s a sound and fair paper that opens new insights onto regulation. This is a good time to do that. Too many take it as an article of faith that the FCC will do better than consumers at protecting consumers’ interests.

This is also a good time to remember that the FCC is our national censor. The U.S. government’s censorious reaction to l’affaire WikiLeaks should serve as counsel to people who would subject Internet service providers to even greater federal regulation. Regulated ISPs will be more compliant with government speech controls.

It’s a point worth emphasizing: Regulated ISPs will be more compliant with government speech controls.

For these reasons, in addition to the ones that have come before, federal regulation of the Internet is a bad idea.

GAO: HHS Imposed an “Unusual” Prior Restraint on Speech during ObamaCare Debate

During the debate over ObamaCare, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services took issue with some of the things that some of the insurers participating in the Medicare Advantage program were telling their enrollees about the legislation.  The Government Accountability Office has just released a review of CMS’s conduct in that episode:

Although CMS’s actions generally conformed to its policies and procedures, the September 21, 2009, memorandum instructing all MA organizations to discontinue communications on pending legislation while CMS conducted its investigation was unusual. Officials from the MA organizations and CMS regional offices that we interviewed told us they were unaware of CMS ever directing all MA organizations to immediately stop an activity before CMS had determined whether that activity violated federal laws, regulations, or MA program guidance. When asked about this directive, officials from CMS’s central office stated that, given the degree of potential harm to beneficiaries, the action was appropriate for the circumstances….

HHS expressed concern that our description of the September 21, 2009, memorandum as “unusual” makes it appear as though their suspension of all MA organizations’ communications on pending health reform legislation was inappropriate. It noted that directing an MA organization to immediately stop an activity while the agency determined whether violations had occurred was infrequent but not unprecedented…. We believe that the example provided—wherein CMS put its data collection activities on hold until the agency resolved concerns with interpretation of its own regulations—is not comparable to CMS instructing all MA organizations to stop sending information about health reform proposals to beneficiaries while it investigated potential violations. Moreover, our characterization of CMS’s action as unusual is based on discussions with MA organizations and CMS staff. They told us that they could not recall a previous example where CMS told all plans to stop an activity after a potential violation was discovered and prior to the completion of an agency investigation.

For the record, CMS lacked (and still lacks) a Senate-confirmed administrator.  It’s worth asking whether this prior restraint placed on speech critical of the administration came from Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who is making quite a name for herself as an enemy of free speech.

Sebelius: Anonymous Political Speech ‘Dangerous’

In all of Washington, is there a greater enemy of free speech than Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius?

  • Her department is forcing millions of Americans to finance speech that they oppose, by using taxpayer dollars to broadcast (misleading) television ads that promote ObamaCare.
  • She is using the powers granted her under ObamaCare to threaten insurers with bankruptcy if they publicly disagree with her about the law’s cost.
  • Now, she is decrying the growth of anonymous political speech in congressional campaigns.

Would that coerced speech, or government suppression of speech, troubled her as much as anonymous speech.

More Censorship in Venezuela

More than 16,000 murders occurred in Venezuela in 2009. That compares with 4,550 homicides reported in 1998, the year Hugo Chavez was elected president. The fact that Venezuela now has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates underscores the Chavez revolution’s utter neglect of the basic and proper functions of government.

Yet the problem is downplayed by the government, which inexplicably blames capitalism and poverty even though official figures show a fall in poverty rates. As if to highlight the government’s insensitivity, the president of state-run TeleSUR TV station recently laughed off the problem in a widely-seen CNN interview.

Last week, El Nacional newspaper published this graphic front-page photo of crime victims in a morgue. The official response from a government-controlled court has been to ban media from publishing violent images for one month. Thus, today El Nacional ran the front-page photo below, which reads “Censored” in the space where photos should be. The way the Bolivarian Revolution is going, Venezuelans can expect the government to continue resolving social problems in the same way.

The Ecuadorian Government’s Campaign against the Free Press

The World Cup is over but not the Ecuadorian government’s propaganda campaign vilifying the free press.

For those Ecuadorians who don’t have Direct TV, but only have cable TV or the local network channels, the only place to have watched the much-awaited matches was on one of the state-owned TV stations and with constant state propaganda. (You can watch the videos depicting the private press as a snake or as shooting bullets coming out of the TV here, here, here and here.)

When I say constant, I might be understating the frequency: according to Infomedia — a media monitoring company— during the weekend of June 18-20 these ads were broadcasted 414 times for a total of 7,988 seconds or 133 minutes.

To make matters worse, the ads continue to be aired at the same time the not-so-independent National Assembly is debating a new communications law that would create a Communications Council — controlled by the executive branch — with the power to impose severe sanctions on radio and TV stations and newspapers.

For starters, the proposed law contains this contradictory statement in its preamble:

Every person … has the right to … search, receive, exchange and distribute information that is truthful, appropriate, contextualized, plural and without previous censorship…

Of course, it will be up to the council to decide what is truthful (and appropriate, contextualized and plural, whatever that means).

Additionally, the Council would have the power to impose sanctions on TV and radio stations and the written press, including fees of 1-10% of the average sales of the media company during the previous three months. The long list of actions that could provoke a sanction includes the following:

  • not complying with the obligation to broadcast at least 40% of nationally produced material during the daily programming schedule;
  • broadcasting or publishing ads that “provoke violence, discrimination, racism, addiction to a drug, religious or political intolerance and all publicity that threatens human rights”;
  • broadcasting commercials that do not “promote consumption that is social and environmentally sustainable”

Again, the government-controlled Council will judge whether media stations are in compliance.

Moreover, the proposed law stipulates that several positions (editors, general directors, news directors, reporters) at TV and radio stations and newspapers be held by individuals with college degrees in communications and journalism. 

The current communications regime also gives similar powers to a body charged with regulating radio and TV stations, but at least on paper, it is not controlled by the executive branch and does not have the power to impose sanctions on the written press. Even so, the current communications regulation was drafted by a military dictatorship in the 1970s and partly amended since the return to democracy in 1979.  President Correa relied on the content control provisions of the law — mostly ignored since 1979 — to shut down privately owned Teleamazonas TV for three days last year.

The Ecuadorian penal and civil codes already define sanctions for individuals who commit libel. These codes, applicable to all citizens, have been useful for Correa’s government: the op-ed page editor of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, was sued by one of Correa’s allies (Camilo Samán, the president of one of the state-owned banks) and convicted to three years in prison for libel (more on that here). Palacio appealed and then Samán mysteriously lifted all charges against the accused a couple of days before Hillary Clinton met with Correa in Quito.

During the last week of the World Cup, the editors-in-chief of the country’s main newspapers published public letters to the secretary of communications of the presidency (read them here, here, and here), Fernando Alvarado, in which they protested being accused in the government propaganda of being “thieves,” promoting “violence” and lying. The editors also demanded that Alvarado specify which media outlet is guilty of these charges and on what precise occasion they committed these punishable crimes. Guadalupe Mantilla, the editor-in-chief of El Comercio stated in her letter that this regrettable abuse of public funds for propaganda has been characterized “by an aggressiveness never before seen in Ecuador during a democratic regime.”

The government reacted to these letters with another offensive ad on TV that was aired during the Spain vs. Germany match. Last week, the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors issued a statement, endorsed by the country’s 12 most important newspapers and magazines, that read: “This attack from the executive branch happens at a time when the National Assembly is about to approve a new Communications Law … that flouts all international principles and agreements pertaining to rights and freedoms. Given these facts and given the lack of independence of the judiciary, we affirm that freedom of expression continues to be violated in Ecuador…”