Knock, knock: Censors at the door

There’s all too much news on the censorship front:

: In a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional overstepping of authority, the FCC is holding approval of a cable merger as ransom to pressure cable companies to reduce sexual content. The FCC has no authority to regulate alleged indecency on cable — or satellite or the internet — this sort of blackmail is hardly the way regulation is supposed to work. The LA Times reports:

The Federal Communications Commission has warned the nation’s two leading cable TV companies that unwanted conditions could be imposed on their proposed acquisition of a rival if they do not agree to curb the proliferation of sexually explicit programming, according to company sources.

Faced with what some are describing as an ultimatum, Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp. have sought to satisfy FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin’s demands by pressuring the rest of the industry to come to a consensus on how to respond, said these sources, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the regulatory approval process.

Martin has made clear in closed-door meetings that he would like Time Warner and Comcast to help advance his anti-indecency agenda. The companies are seeking to acquire Adelphia Communications Corp. for $17.6 billion.

Through a spokesman, Martin declined to comment. So did representatives of Time Warner and Comcast.

: This week, Mel Karmazin, former head of Viacom and now head of Sirius, appeared on Howard Stern’s show and said that his greatest disappointment, the worst moment of his career was when the FCC held station purchases ransom — his word — to get the company to settle indecency complaints against Stern and pay $1.7 million in fines.

It continues.

: With cable companies buckling under FCC pressure to offer “family-friendly” tiers of programming — rather than being forced to offer a la carte …. more regulatory blackmail without legislative authority — Sen. Ted Stevens, who has been pushing for regulation of content (read: censorship) of cable and satellite and the internet. In one breath this week, he hinted that he’d put currently pending/threatened indecency legislation on hold. But he quickly changed that tune and said “we’re going to continue to pressure.”

That’s all the FCC and Congress can do, really: pressure. For they all know well that if they tried to legislate government censorship of cable, satellite — and, watch out, folks, the internet — it would be unconstitutional.

: And Michael Copps, the FCC commissioner from hell, said he’ll keep pushing for censorship of cable and satellite:

Congress should consider a bill to curb sex and obscenity on television even after cable TV companies Monday said they planned to offer packages of family-friendly channels, a member of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where we can say we don’t need legislation,” Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Washington. “Let’s keep pushing.”

: But this isn’t just America’s problem, folks. Susan Crawford warns that the EU is about to pass legislation that could introduce censorship to the internet and she fears it would spread here:

In the US, we are dangerously close to requiring indecency limitations on cable channels — next will come calls to similarly regulate satellite, and eventually online streaming video, all in the name of maintaining a level regulatory playing field. All of this is probably unconstitutional, according to the Congressional Research Service.

(Recent joke: Kevin Martin is so conservative that he wants to take the “F” out of “FCC”.)

In Europe, the Television Sans Frontieres initiative continues to steam along, with a new draft directive coming out from the Commission by the end of 2005. Draft language from July 2005 read::

Member States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that audiovisual content services are not distributed in such a way that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors.

In respect of non-linear audiovisual content services [e.g., streaming online video requested by users] Member States are encouraged to put in place systems of co-regulation or self-regulation as well [as] systems of filtering, age verification, labelling and classification of content.

It’s not clear to me what the plan is for the end-of-December legislative draft, but I will wager that some restrictions on online video pronounced in the name of protecting children will be included (“in order to protect the public and to avoid the distortions of competition,” in the words of a French official). Mandated standards will likely be set by government, to be implemented by industry.

Migrating a Television Sans Frontieres-like regime (which includes rights of reply, advertising restrictions, and other elements as well as “protecting children”) onto cable-satellite-internet in the US might have seemed unthinkable ten years ago. But times have changed.

Many members of Congress think that pornography on the internet has to be regulated, and mere unconstitutionality probably isn’t a good enough reason for them not to pass such laws. And the FCC seems ready to break some kneecaps (= block some deals) in order to reach similar ends.

: At lunch yesterday, Susan and I concocted a plot to save the First Amendment from the small cult of national nannies and cynical politicians.

We agreed that we need a lobbyist for the First Amendment, someone to place counterweight pressure on Congress and the FCC in favor of the great American value of free speech. But who? Susan writes the job ad:

So here’s what we need: an idealistic, persuasive, charismatic, well-informed mogul of the First Amendment. Someone who isn’t conflicted by client representations or business interests. Someone who can talk to the whole country about the importance of the free flow of speech online and off. Someone who can lead.

Send word if you spot this person on the street or in a meeting.

  • Rob

    Why does Viacom and Sirrius even need to be located in the USA, could they not beam their programs from Canada or 3 miles off shore?

  • Boy I sure do love situations where I have no one to root for. On the one hand, stay the Hell outof content decisions, FCC. On the other hand, do we really need yet another massive telecom acquisition and/or merger?

    A pox on these priorities.

  • Jorge

    Censoring Filth is not the same as censoring ideas. Things that shouldn’t be censored are political thought, indiference to standards, and many other things. Filth that is not meaningful or humorus can at times be censored. Life is better when children have utmost consideration.

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  • I find Jorge’s comment filthy. Does that mean we can censor it?

  • >Life is better when children have utmost consideration.

    Says you. Filth *is* an idea.

    Hey, I’m interested in that lobbyist job. What’s the pay?

  • Jeff

    Lobbyist – The EFF

  • james

    you missed a crucial point in the “ransom” paid by Viacom. officially, they never paid a fine but rather made a “voluntary contribution” of $1.7 million.

    the term “fine” almost implies legitimacy.

  • Lobbyists for the First Amendment? The American Library Association has been out there in the trenches for quite some time now, Jeff. When our elected representatives who should have known better let the Neopuritans wage this bullshit “culture war”, librarians fought them tooth and nail when no one else had the spine to do so.

  • kat

    {Rob Says:
    December 14th, 2005 at 6:01 pm
    Why does Viacom and Sirrius even need to be located in the USA, could they not beam their programs from Canada}
    That is a great idea. I hear that Canada’s FCC(don’t know the name of the Canadian agency)won’t allow Howard Stern on their Sirius.

  • Jersey Exile — You’re so right about the librarians. They’ve been front and center in all the key cases. They’re wonderful.

  • I agree with The One

    a pox on everyone involved – cable companies have done very little for us despite having virtual monopolies in most neighborhoods for decades

    and the FCC is simply seeing how far their leash extends to – but since BushCo have far more pressing concerns I doubt they’ll even notice this powergrab.

    all i know is i have Directv and eh eh eh so im all good… until that fake democrat Copps comes after me (Jeff you really shouldnt keep going along with his claim of being a Dem.) (in fact, why dont you score an interview with him and ask him why he keeps calling himself that.)

  • I’m kind of with JJ on this, as far as FCC meddling in cable content. There’s a big difference between paid content — programming that consumers effectively invite into their homes — and the public airwaves which are licensed based on some degree of accountability to the public at large.

    At the same time, I’m left relatively uninterested in joining this fight, since the proponents here have shown themselves to be extremists on this in the past, and have demonstrated that they see absolutely no difference between cable and the public airwaves when it comes to exploitative programming: allowing media to *offer* adult fare is freedom of speech; allowing media to shove adult fare onto families and children without warning or guidelines on the public airwaves is not freedom of speech, but childish and immoral exploitation.

    Janet Jackson’s boob wasn’t an option made to the public, ala cable; it was made required viewing for the entire country based on the preponderance of interest in a shared, national event. Meanwhile, a network that not only uses the public airwaves, but is also partially funded by tax dollars, is allowed to be consistently partisan (sometimes quite blantantly so) and fend off attempts to balance their political content at least a little for those of us footing the bill.

    There is no doubt that if we had a taxpayer-supported network that primarily broadcast conservative and Republican views, the “anti-censors” would consider that a free speech scandal of the first order. We would hear nothing else. But they are blind to free speech implications when it comes to public and private institutions that they manage to dominate; they seek to put through bills to limit the speech of people they don’t like on media they don’t wholly control (Rush Limbaugh); they support anti-speech measures such as McCain-Feingold when they think it will be to their advantage; they shout down people they don’t like on college campuses; again and again, we see free speech taking hits from the very people who wring their hands about Janet Jackson’s boobs and the poor ol’ cable companies.

    Clean up the other free speech scandals, first. They are far more pernicious. Then you might find a bit more company in fighting to defend cable companies broadcasting pootie tang.

  • fuck the government, particularly our current one.

  • There was a time in which alchool was forbidden in the US.
    It doesn’t look that people didn’t drink anymore.
    On the contrary, besides being an invitation to something forbidden, it also made the fortune of the smugglers.
    I bet sex and porno would follow the same path…as much as free speech.
    May be people will even feel invited to think and talk more.Forbidding something doesn’t really mean killing it.
    It will just create a parallel, illegal, free broadcasting(which in principle already exists, P2P)giving it a legal reason to exist…


  • Pitty poor Mel.

    Folks willing to sell out their First Amendment rights for a few bucks have no claim on them.

    There’s the expedient solution: giving in, and the correct solution: taking the government to court.

    Democracy isn’t in danger. The first amendment is alive and well as long as people refuse to sell out.

    Your anger shouldn’t be with the government, Jeff. It is acting as any government would. Your anger should be with those willing to sell us all down the river for a sheckle.

  • The First Amendment ranks, well, first on the list of items (Bill of Rights) that make up our citizens’ contract with their government. That is, I agree to suceed some power to the central government in return for protection from harm — mainly from foreign armies. The Bill of Rights spells out this contract with Washington, DC. The cable piped into my home (which I pay way too much for) is neither foreign, nor an army.

    This push to regulated speech and media (press) smacks of grandstanding. Wasn’t adult content on cable addressed 15 years ago with V-chips? Can’t concerned parents lock out channels they find offensive? Since the answer to both of those questions is yes, the FCC cannot possibly be working on the behalf of constituents. The only other possible answer is the FCC thinks Americans so stupid that they can’t learn to program a TV remote. Does anyone else find that patronizing? Do we really want to suceed our parental duties to the government?

  • Wow, this is so weird … it’s like a time-warp from 1996 or so. Where to begin …

    Oh hell, I have a lot more to lose than I have to gain :-(.

    Anyway, there’s been *at least* three major US court cases over this territory (CDA, COPA, Nitke), the last still on-going. I’ve lost track of the iterations in the EU and elsewhere.

    No savior found yet. Looking for one for 10 years and not finding such a messiah, seems to suggest it won’t happen. Now, about fundraising …

  • BW

    # Jorge Says:
    December 14th, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    Censoring Filth is not the same as censoring ideas. Things that shouldn’t be censored are political thought, indiference to standards, and many other things. Filth that is not meaningful or humorus can at times be censored. Life is better when children have utmost consideration.
    Censoring filth IS ABSOLUTELY the same as censoring ideas. If we wanted to improve the health of the country, we could start by banning televisions altogether. To me, sitting for hours in front of a tv, eating, makes life a lot worse than any “filth.” It’s all relative. I just don’t see how you can separate ideas arbitrarily. I find it hysterical that some people go through their lives getting worked up over images on tv. No wonder I have all my hair; I get to go through life not being stressed out about sexuality.
    Your idea of consideration for children is not mine and not the next guy’s. I happen to think that exposure to many things, good or bad, makes a person better equipped to deal with life. So to me, censoring “filth” does more harm than good, and it’s a censoring of ideas.
    You do realize that Europeans think we’re bizarre because of our reaction to the Janet Jackson thing, right? Maybe one will read this and back me up.
    Let me rephrase that – maybe one will read this and fucking back me up. There, I said the F word. Children around the world will read that and go out of their minds!

    One last thing: fine, I can understand if you don’t want your children exposed to certain things if they buy a tv and plug it in. I’ll respect that. But please respect my desire to bring it in to my house if I want and pay for it.

  • Not to niggle a point, but, once the birds in the air are in the game, no matter how you want to slice it, we’re talking about broadcasting over a publicly available spectrum.

    CBS, NBC, HBO, Sirius, whatever. Any half-geeked kid get jigger a receiver to pull in the signals. So if it ain’t coming directly out of a paid-for pipe, why shouldn’t the Feds grab for their pound of bureucratic flesh?

  • Carson Fire said it best.

    Most of the people that go apoplectic over public air wave censorship would be well served to reread his post and perhaps research the other larger free speech issues. Otherwise they come off as small minded morality- and religious-phobes quite ignorant of the free speech issue.

    It reminds me of people that flip out over the teaching of Intelligent Design in government schools but don’t give a hoot about the schools’ overall abject failures. Kids graduate illiterate and yet these knuckleheads are more concerned about a few paragraphs in a 10th grade text book.

    Please, enough with the slippery slope arguments.

  • Jorge


    I agree with you wholeheartedly. But , I personally feel that exposing young children to unusual sexual conduct could affect their attitude toward a healthy sexual lifestyle. I just care a lot about children.

  • Jeff: I am intruiged (and not just a little depressed) about the idea of a 1st Am evangelist. Sad that it has come to this, but you and Susan are spot on. I recall absolutely nothing about a Constituional right to cable TV. The FCC is a tyranny now with its own rules, its own appeals and its own cops.

    How do you envision the 1st Am preacher getting exposure? It’s not exactly going to be a paying gig, is it? And won’t a generally conservative nation cry “ACLU CONSPIRATOR!” the moment someone stands up for freedom of expression?

    It’s astonishing, absolutely astonishing, that the words “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or freedom of the press…” get abridged by the day. What possible language could the Framers have used to be any clearer? “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press unless someone’s boob is involved, then it’s every landowner for himself?”

  • Who Ya Gonna Call When The Gestapo’s At The Door?

    Jeff is 100% correct to be pissed off at the continuing erosion of the 1st Amendment and media freedom, but frankly the media (and journalism as a profession) has no one to blame but itself.

    When the American media has been front and center in the plot to disarm America and sell the 2nd Amendment down the river through lies, distortions, and manipulated reporting where do they come off complaining that the 1st Amendment is now going down that same path?

    Think about the reaction of big media when the NRA – which has been publishing numerous magazines, books, radio and television shows since the 1870s – took the leading role in challenging the disgusting Campaign Finance Law by claiming to be a media organization.

    The USA Today headlined with “Special interests corrupt what is and isn’t news” on April 26, 2004. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled its April 19, 2004 editorial MUST SHOOT TV?. And the all esteemed New York times called it a “transparent device designed to circumvent” federal laws and an attempt to “broadcast its anti-gun-control polemics in the name of legitimate news.”

    I don’t recall a single media organization (or most importantly you Jeff) coming to the NRA’s defense when John Kerry called for the government to strip it of any media exemption to campaign finance laws it was able to ascertain.

    As Charlton Heston famously said (and was again, much derided for in the Media) :

    I say that the Second Amendment is, in order of importance, the first amendment. It is America’s First Freedom, the one right that protects all the others. Among freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of redress of grievances, it is the first among equals. It alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear. The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows “rights” to exist at all.

  • Good post Countertop.

    It is not freedom of all speech but rather freedom of filth.

    It is not about the sanctity of Constitutional Amendments.

    It is simply hypersensitive religious-phobia.

  • No, it’s not. It’s bureaucratic bullying under the guise of moral censorship.

    I’ve got satellite here in the UK. In fact, we only just got it and I’m thinking of handing it back. We were not told that by ordering news, music and entertainment, we would also get restricted access to adult programming featuring after 8pm on some channels, topless, be-thonged wigglers inviting us into the hard core programming.

    My kids are sometimes up until 9. Luckily we discovered these channels before they did. You can tell me that I could screen them out, but these channels cannot be programmed out. I’ve no objection to people subscribing to pornographic channels or say, Howard Stern, if they so choose. I object to having it forced on me and my young family when I didn’t order it.

    If my satellite provider didn’t use these underhanded methods of attempting to hook us into their pornographic programming, I would wholeheartedly disagree with the FCC’s bureaucratic bullying. And that’s what it is, it’s not religious, it’s not moral, it’s an opportunity to grab more power over what people get up to in their daily lives. But in the face of what’s being foisted on people who might not wish to see it but would have no objection to other people, adults for example, having access to it, it makes it a much more difficult case to argue against.

    I would love to be able to block these stations, free or not, so that I don;t have to worry about leaving the remote control lying around after 8pm when I nip into the kitchen to make a quick cup of tea, giving my children the opportunity to innocently flip through channels, but like I said, they don’t give me this option.

    Cable or satellite companies who offer customers what they want to offer them, not necessarily what their customers are looking for, are inviting the FCC in like a red flag to a bull, saying: “Regulate me. Regulate me. Regulate me. I cannot control myself.” Next, we’ll have licensed reporters giving us the news and watchdogs in every area of our lives using modern technology to invade our privacy. And if it is allowed to continue down the path on which it is set, we will be living under a dictatorial bureaucracy worse than communism and far more efficient.

    It is up to us as individuals to demand more control, as customers, over what we choose to look at so that the bureaucrats are not given the excuse they are looking for to step in and run our lives.

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  • Why are you falling into the trap of framing it in terms of morality? That is what the FCC would like you to do since something like pornography is not morally justifiable.

  • Dave

    I think that the freedoms we are given in this country work best when people can police themselves. However, people of conscience and religious observers can not actually police what comes into their homes. The v-chip in tv is only as good as the rating system, and that’s not so effective at screening out such filth. However, if cable were to offer al-a-carte channel selection, I’d feel much better. I’m not into the idea of my cable bill supplementing certain channels that show questionable content and need to be supplemented by my money to afford to be shown.

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  • Dave, I like that suggestion. Let us choose and pay for the channels we want and let the others sink or swim based on how many people pay to watch them or advertise on them. And if the filth is popular and profitable, then at least I don’t have to worry about my children seeing it.