David Harsanyi, Denver Post:
As there is no real problem with the Internet, it’s not surprising that some of our top minds have been diligently working on a solution.
In a 2001 interview (one that’s only recently gone viral and caused a brouhaha), Cass Sunstein, now the nation’s regulatory czar, is overheard advocating for government to insist all websites offer opposing viewpoints — or, in other words, a Fairness Doctrine for the Web. This was necessary because, as hundreds of millions of Internet users can attest, ferreting out competing perspectives online is all but impossible. (A search for “Cass Sunstein” on Google, for instance, barely generated 303,000 results in 0.19 seconds.)
What if websites refused to acquiesce to this intrusion on free speech? “If we could get voluntary arrangements in that direction it would be great,” said Sunstein at the time, “and if we can’t get voluntary arrangements maybe Congress should hold hearings about mandates.” After all, Sunstein went on to say, “the word voluntary is a little complicated. And sometimes people don’t do what’s best for our society.” Mandates, he said, were the “ultimate weapon designed to encourage people to do better.”
Actually, the word “voluntary” isn’t complicated at all. And mandates do not “encourage” people to do better; mandates “force” people to do what those writing regulations happen to think is better. We’re intimately familiar with the distinction.
In truth, I’ve enjoyed many of Sunstein’s counterintuitive arguments and read his idealistic notions about “nudging” (and sometimes a bit more, apparently — I guess it’s complicated) irrational people into “rational” choices. Sunstein is an intellectual who thinks aloud. Obviously that can come back to cause you some problems.
Then again, would an impulsive intellectual who wondered aloud about coercing universities to offer more right-wing professors, or casually entertained the idea of dispensing with the First Amendment, be tasked with the job of overseeing the health of the nation’s entire regulatory system, which holds so many real-world consequences? Doubtful.
Sunstein, it must be noted, later backed off his dictatorial approach to dealing with the non-crisis of our narrow online reading habits by claiming that the Internet was “too difficult to regulate in a way that would respond to these concerns.” In other words, he concluded that the Internet is too complex to allow for the types of regulatory intrusions we insist on in other areas of everyday life.
Others have not backed off, though. The Federal Communications Commission has been working diligently to find a way to act on the same control impulses that Sunstein had in mind with something called net neutrality.
The FCC promises it doesn’t have any intention of controlling Internet content, only making access fair. But empowered with the ability to regulate the flow of online traffic, they offer a semantic, not substantive, excuse for a power grab.
Like Sunstein, the FCC should acknowledge that the complexities of the Internet are beyond the ability of control. Not to mention unnecessary.
Part of the charm of progressivism is its cynical appeal to cherished notions of individualism that it adopts and then totally subverts — from “tolerance” to “freedom” to (in this instance) “voluntary.”
“Encouraging” by way of coercion is slipping a velvet glove over an iron fist. Which, not only is it dishonest, but it speaks to the kinds of people doing the coercing: self-appointed elites who are all for applying force, so long as they don’t get the dirt under their own nails.
CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN!