Must the government establish what amounts to a new PublicBroadcasting System for the Internet, funded by the billions ofdollars in revenues forthcoming from the sale of broadcastspectrum? Is this a proposal upon which free speech, our culturalheritage, and the education of our children depend? Some seem tothink so. But a better idea is to simply return those billions ofdollars to taxpayers so that they might choose their ownprogramming and decide for themselves what educational or culturalinitiatives to fund.
Here we go again. The history of communications and broadcastindustry regulation is littered with silly crusades undertaken inthe name of serving the “public interest.” While eluding definitionfor decades, this amorphous concept has spawned innumerable policydirectives and spending initiatives. Much like pornography,omniscient members of Congress and their benevolent bureaucraticbrethren at the Federal Communications Commission always seem toknow the public interest when they see it. But since the publicinterest is whatever they say it is, it’s a splendidly convenient(if not a tad bit circular) concept by which to manage one of thebiggest sectors of the U.S. economy.
Now comes the latest grand public interest scheme: the DigitalOpportunity Investment Trust fund program, or “DO IT.” DO IT is thebrainchild of two former PBS and FCC chairmen who established theDigital Promiseproject to “haltthe encroachment of purely marketplace values upon the missions ofour public service institutions” The Digital Promise websitesproposes that “the Trust should commission the development ofonline courses, training materials, archives, software, civicinformation, quality arts and cultural programs, and other digitalresources and services of the highest standards to meet the needsof all citizens and help them gain access to the best minds andtalents in our society.”
This proposal is really just old wine in a new bottle. DO ITmight best be thought of as the fusion of the National Endowmentfor the Arts, PBS, and the “E‑Rate” program (or “Gore Tax” as itis called by some). DO IT supporters have learned seemingly nothingfrom the heated debates over the public funding of controversialprograms such as these. In fact, this concept has quickly won thesupport of many academics and even high‐tech heavyweights likeRealNetworks, 3Com, eBay, and George Lucas. (Apparently no one hasasked those parties if they’ve considered putting their own moneyon the line instead of merely endorsing another mandated publiccharity program.)
Congress has taken the bait too. Rep. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.),sponsor of the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital DividendsAct, has proposed a Digital Dividends Trust Fund. The bill, and oneapparently forthcoming from Sen. Christopher Dodd (D‑Conn.),proposes to use a portion of broadcast spectrum auction revenuesscheduled to be freed up as part of the train wreck called the digital television transition to fund avariety of “public interest” projects or entities deemed worthy bya board of eight trustees. In theory, the government will get thechance to auction a large chunk of the spectrum currently dedicatedto analog TV if the broadcast community can be coaxed or forced tomove all their signals to the digital channels granted them as partof a scandalous give‐awayback in 1996. If this scheme works, the stakes could be enormous,since tens or potentially even hundreds of billions of dollarscould flow into federal coffers.
Eyeing the pot of gold at the end of the spectrum rainbow is anall‐too‐eager‐to‐spread‐the‐wealth Congress. Rep. Markey’s DigitalDividends Trust Fund would use a significant chunk of the auctionproceeds to spread the pork around in assorted ways that mirror theDO IT proposal: teacher and librarian training; R & D programsfor “sophisticated content‐related educational software andprogramming designed to enhance learning” in schools and libraries;technology projects undertaken by AmeriCorps and the Corporationfor National Service; worker retraining programs; after‐schoolprograms and computer literacy initiatives; subsidies to publicbroadcasters to help them convert their stations to digital TV;rural broadband subsidies; and the list goes on.
The private sector is already busy providing such offerings,from rapidly updated and competitive educational software offeringsto web‐based libraries to broadband rollout. Americans can availthemselves of such materials and services all the better ifCongress returns the proceeds of spectrum auctions to taxpayers andlets families “DO IT” themselves. While the release of the Markeybill and the Digital Promise initiative garner today’s attention,this effort is part of a much larger agenda shared by a variety ofgroups and individuals who are seeking to advance an overtlycollectivist agenda for cyberspace and the electromagneticspectrum. Their lingo consists of catchy phrases like “publicspaces on the Net,” a “spectrum commons,” and “shared publicassets,” but in the end, it’s just more socialist snake oil thatrejects free markets and consumer choice.
Recent conferences at the New America Foundation featured a host ofpanelists articulating even more ideas on establishing an“information commons,” as if such a thing is automatically orinherently superior to an information marketplace,consisting of the proprietary information sources that alreadyexist. The public spaces or information commons movement drawsenergy from the flawed premise that capitalism and freedom areinimical to civil society and the diffusion of ideas, and thatsomething else‐something governmental-is required if we’reall to be enlightened (somewhat left‐leaning?) citizens. Yet amarketplace is a prerequisite for freedom and tolerance in ideas,not something that must be countered by a new PBS for the Net.America established a First Amendment precisely because governmentscan threaten these values. Markets, not auction revenues funneledto pet political projects, will be the source of tomorrow’ssignificant and useful “public” information. The “public spaces“movement’s enshrinement of a political rather than civil view ofthe foundation of a genuine “information commons” is misguided.
In the end, the Digital Promise DO IT proposal will simplydeteriorate into regulatory transfers and the funding of “approved“information or information nobody wants. (If people want it,government need not fund it through coercion). Our heritage offreedom of speech has given us “public spaces”-movies, bookstores,websites, archives, civic programming‐not just worthy of the name,but that people want to pay for. We don’t need a Ministry of CyberCulture to decide these things for us.