The slippery slope of regulating the internet

Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she was ready for NPR Morning Edition host David Greene’s obvious question this morning after she outlined her plan for government oversight of part of the internet.

The Minnesota senior senator’s bill requires full disclosure of online political spending.

“What this is about is paid political advertising, just like broadcast or radio has,” Klobuchar said. “If I buy a TV ad or a radio ad, then it has to be publicly registered — when the ad aired, who bought it….”

“Are you basically saying Facebook should be treated like a broadcaster?” Greene interjected.

“They should be treated that way for paid ads; not for content of people posting, not for news, but for paid ads,” she said.

Greene asked about “bots”, automated programs that dump content — not paid ads — on social networking sites but Klobuchar didn’t indicate whether that content, too, would be regulated by the Federal Election Commission.

That’s not a slippery slope at all, a point which Greene got around to near the end of the interview.

“I’m glad you brought up democracy, because I’m wondering if you’re worried about a slippery slope if you start regulating parts of the Internet. Freedom on the Internet feels so democratic, in many ways,” he said.

That’s a good question and one that’s going to require a better answer going forward.

“Of course we are not regulating news postings,” the senator said. “We are not regulating when you post your kids birthday party, or you decide you’re mad about the energy policy in this administration and you do a video yourself… none of that is regulated. These are paid ads. Paid ads… a lot of things you see on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google that you don’t think are paid ads, they are paid ads.”

It’s a fair point that ignores the history of broadcast regulation in the United States, which originally was a technical regulation to organize the use of broadcast frequencies and license stations to serve in the public interest.

To serve in the public interest” eventually became the reason by which regulation expanded into content, which, for example, required broadcasters to bleep out the “F-bombs” that people being shot at in Las Vegas on Sunday were hurling in their videos. A mass slaughter isn’t obscene, but an “f-bomb” can earn big fines.

That’s content regulation, just as forcing broadcasters to provide equal time on issues was, or banning public radio stations from issuing “calls to action”, and all of it was initially made possible by the declaration at some point in the past that the government could regulate a medium and deny, essentially, full First Amendment protection to it.

Klobuchar also justified government regulation by noting that online companies made over $1.4 billion in the last campaign, which is a poor reason for the government to be involved.

All of these questions are going to require a more thoughtful discussion of the future than “don’t worry your cat videos won’t be regulated” because the history of media regulation suggests that once a medium is regulated in the name of preserving democracy, a little of it is lost.

Related: How to stop Russian robots from attacking the next election (Washington Post)