Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

The Federal Communications Commission Versus the First Amendment

Newspapers and movie studios have reasonably good protections from government intervention and censorship. But as Steve Chapman explains, the Federal Communications Commission successfully has limited the First Amendment rights of television networks:

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech has complex implications, but it clearly means two things: The government cannot tell you what to say, and it cannot tell you what not to say. That is your own business, and if you conduct it in a way the government dislikes, the government can take a flying leap. Unless by “government” you mean the Federal Communications Commission. It operates on the assumption that in its special realm, the First Amendment is a nonbinding resolution.

In addition to the constitutional argument, he makes two excellent points. First, improving television quality (as defined by politicians) is not the business of government. Second, parents should decide what their kids see, not bureaucrats:

…parents who want to shield their kids from bad language on TV already have ample means to do so – via channel blocking and V-chips that can be used to filter out programs with content they regard as inappropriate. The FCC says these methods are ineffective because parents don’t use them. More likely, parents don’t bother because they don’t think the problem is serious enough to justify the effort to shield kids from words they’ve already heard on YouTube. To insert the federal government is not a way to strengthen the authority of parents but to circumvent it. …The idea that we need the FCC to assure educational opportunities for children is nonsense on stilts. In the first place, there are plenty of channels, from PBS to the Discovery Channel, that offer nothing but educational programming. …In the second place, any parents truly interested in exposing their children to intellectual stimulation are more likely to shut the TV off than turn it on. Even if more educational programming would be a good thing, what business is that of the government? More G-rated films would be a good thing, too, but we don’t force movie studios to produce them. …Today, most viewers no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast programs. So having different rules for each makes about as much sense as having different regulations for odd- and even-numbered channels.

Senator Susan Collins Supports National ID

I wrote here previously about Senator Susan Collins’ odd move to protect the REAL ID Act from a nationwide rebellion that began in her own state of Maine.  She had introduced a bill to extend the deadline for implementation of the REAL ID Act by two years.

Followers of REAL ID know that delaying implementation helps a national ID go forward by giving the companies and organizations that sustain themselves on these kinds of projects time to shake the federal money tree and get this $11 billion surveillance mandate funded.

It is now clear that the bill is intended to provide a key piece of support to proponents of a national ID, as shown by a press release on her Web site this morning touting a statement from the National Governors Association.  Collins has gone native, attending more carefully to the interests of national political organizations than to the interests of her constituents in Maine.

Representative Tom Allen (D-ME) has introduced legislation to repeal REAL ID and restore the identification provisions in the 9/11-Commission inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.  Unlike Collins, he seems to be paying attention to his home state.  Politicians’ stances on REAL ID have affected their electability in the past.

Senator Collins should be well aware that delay can’t make the REAL ID Act work.  The real problem is the law itself, and it should be repealed.

Update: A DHS press release issued today announces that it will grant states an extension of the compliance deadline, and it will allocate funds from the Homeland Security Grant Program.  The money tree has already begun shaking.  Secretary Chertoff is quoted saying, “We are also pleased to have been able to work with Senator Susan Collins, and I believe that the proposed regulations reflect her approach.” 

Who You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Lying Eyes?

Here’s Representative Barbara Cubin’s (R-WY) letter to state legislators regarding the REAL ID Act, as reported in the Casper Star-Tribune:  “The new driver’s licenses will allow state and federal law enforcement to check the authenticity of a license, but will not grant access to state databases of private information.”

Now here’s section 202(d) of the REAL ID Act:

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State. 

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and

(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

Who you gonna believe?

Government Identity Programs in Collapse?

Government Computer News has had a number of articles recently about the problems besieging the Transportation Worker Identity Card (or TWIC), one of a number of government identification systems nominally responding to the post-9/11 threat environment.  It should be no surprise to government watchers that a service provider for TWIC, viewed by many as unqualified, happens to be in the district of the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.

The REAL ID Act is a bigger government identity control project, by far, which attempts to force states to convert their drivers’ licenses into a national ID card.  Regulations implementing REAL ID are widely expected to be released this week.  

Even while the architects of the surveillance state gather to talk about implementation, the Washington Post has an article out today that is probably best taken as the first post mortem on REAL ID

The headline (“As Bush’s ID Plan Was Delayed, Coalition Formed Against It”) wrongly attributes REAL ID to the Bush Administration, which was not a proponent of REAL ID, though the President did accept it as part of a military spending bill.  The article correctly attributes responsibility to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Though the Bush Administration has room to distance itself from this colossal unfunded national surveillance mandate, a prominent member of the Administration appears to have consumed the REAL ID Koolaid - in quantity.

“If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 commission why we didn’t do it,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.

Secretary Chertoff’s shameless terror-pandering is matched only by his ignorance of identification’s utility as a security tool.  People who understand identification know that it does not provide security against committed threats.

It’s unfortunate that government works by trial and error, but this trial may soon show that a national ID is error.

Sunstein, Hayek, and Wikipedia

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein may not be among libertarians’ favorite thinkers, but Sunstein is, in his own way, a strong advocate of individual liberty and free markets.

Hayek fans will enjoy Sunstein’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he describes how individuals are using computer-age technology to aggregate information. A snippet:

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity that have been made possible by new technologies.

Sunstein’s op-ed goes on to discuss intriguing experiments with events futures, which should delight Cato friend Robin Hanson:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

War of the Amateur Education Analysts

Here’s Apple’s Steve Jobs on education policy:

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” the Apple CEO told a school-reform conference in Texas on Saturday. “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”

But it’s not a news story.  This is from a column by Wired’s Leander Kahney, who goes on to say: 

Jobs knows a lot about schools; he’s been selling computers to them for more than 30 years. But don’t you love it when a billionaire who sends his own kids to private school applies half-baked business platitudes to complex problems like schools? I’m surprised Jobs didn’t suggest we outsource education to the same nonunion Chinese factories that build his iPods.

It’s amazing to see a thoughtful technology writer heap derision on education reform as if the innovation and creativity in the highly competitive technology field somehow can’t happen elsewhere.  Schools have “complex problems” … .  Designing and marketing consumer electronics is pat-a-cake?

Luckily, Tim Lee is on the case.  Writing at Technology Liberation Front, he says:

In his conclusion, Kahney chalks up our poor educational performance to “enormous economic inequality and the total absence of social safety nets.” I wonder if it’s occurred to Kahney that one of the major contributors to economic inequality is our quasi-feudal education system, in which access to a good school is tied to your parents’ ability to purchase a home in a good school district (or to afford tuition at a private school)? The whole point of school choice is to give low-income parents the same opportunities that wealthier parents now enjoy—to send their children to the school that works best for their own child. If Mr. Kahney is concerned about inequality, supporting school choice should be a no-brainer.