Technologies of Freedom

It now is a given that media, communications, content and delivery are converging, erasing former clear lines between industries and functions. That has important consequences.

And some ideas, even if abstract, really do matter, in that regard. Freedom, responsibility and fairness always come to mind, given my academic training in journalism. It now appears, for a variety of reasons having nothing much to do with those ideas, that freedom is imperiled.

Ironically, it is the leading app providers that now face threats to their freedom, as there are growing calls to “regulate” them in greater ways, globally.

Let me be clear: my own position has for decades been that more freedom for all in the ecosystem works best, and is the preferred approach to policy. Those of you who ever have read Technologies of Freedom will understand why.

Responsibility and fairness also are requirements, but something that has to happen at the personal, firm and industry level. Yes, this can be done “to” people, firms and industries, by government fiat. But freedom is the preferred course.

In a world where formerly-distinct endeavors and industries really are converging, we have a choice: extend freedom to former highly-regulated entities who now operate in entirely-new realms where freedom is the policy (First Amendment protections), or remove freedom from content providers and make them “utilities.”

The bigger challenge right now is getting the transition right. Somehow, we need to balance regulatory models, away from “utility” and “common carrier” regulation for app providers, but also away from such regulation for firms that now participate in activities that increasingly are inseparable from traditional First Amendment protected ideas, content and media.

At the same time, major app providers already operate as “access providers,” though without the obligations imposed on only a few access providers.

Some now are arguing essentially for “less freedom” for Facebook, Google, Amazon and others, and “even less freedom” for access providers who--despite becoming content providers at their core--deserve freedom no less than any other content provider.

The better policy is to extend the realm of freedom further, not restrict it. In other words, when harmonization is required, it is better to extend freedom to formerly-distinct industries (broadcast TV and radio, cable TV and other distribution entities, even telcos).

Yes, debates about First Amendment protections are abstract. But they are fundamental and consequential, when our old ways of regulating (freedom for media; some regulation for broadcast; common carrier for telcos) need changing, as the spheres converge.

We can take away freedom, or we can extend it. As argued in Technologies of Freedom, more freedom is the better course.

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