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.