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)

  • jon

    This doesn’t sound like regulating the internet.

    This is regulating companies that sell ads on the internet, and requiring them to report political advertising.

    And while that is feasible, for US companies, the internet is a global thing and regulating companies that have no business in the US is going to be impossible…

    I think the obvious solution is that political organizations are already required to register and report their spending, so google and facebook shouldn’t have to report it for them…
    It sounds like the problem is that we have unregistered players (russia) coming in and buying political ads…
    Seems like the solution would be to have google/facebook/the like report when they have unregistered players buying political ads and having those groups who are making the buy investigated.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      It would seem to me that one solution is to require the company posting the ad to divulge the source of the ad if requested. In the case of paid political advertising you could limit those requests to someone in the area that ad is targeting. So a watchdog group from Minnesota couldn’t complain about an ad directed at the Governor’s race in Iowa. But if someone in Ames or some group in Iowa City requested the information about an ad dealing with that race they would have to be provided the information.

  • Chris

    Is there any solution to any problem that can’t be slippery sloped to death without facing the actual problem? Apparently the KGB spent a lot of money to target rubes on facebook. Could they have purchased ads on local TV in the same way? Don’t think so.

    • // Is there any solution to any problem that can’t be slippery sloped to death without facing the actual problem?

      No one is making any argument that stopping the KGB from influencing elections is a bad idea or goal.

      If you’re saying that having the government oversee elements of editorial decision making or content is a good idea or fair collateral damage to the effort, you should say it.

      • Chris

        Are you saying Klobuchar is saying that, because she’s not. So why the slippery slope concerns? You can cry slippery slope to any proposal at any time.

        • // Are you saying Klobuchar is saying that,

          I’m saying exactly what I wrote. Read it if you get time.

          • Chris

            Me too! I did read your post, but thanks for the snark!

          • Then you know that the point is the bill requires MUCH more discussion because it’s a potential constitutional challenge.

            But, yeah, I see the irony of recommending a comprehensive, complicated, and intelligent discussion about something having to do with things that are on the Internet.

          • Chris

            You still haven’t said why regulating paid political ads on facebook is itself bad, other than “it’s a slippery slope” to something that might actually be bad, but is not what is being proposed. I see the irony too!

          • I would be fine with regulating any political ad spending so long as legislation barred the government from regulating ANY other content online now or in the future. Bot posts would be content, by the way.

            Also, you seem to be dismissing the slippery slope argument so perhaps you could cite instances when the government regulation of media content hasn’t expanded into areas not originally intended.

          • Chris

            Ha! Not good enough that you agree with my underlying point after snarkily saying I didn’t read your post. Now I have to prove the slippery slope fallacy!

          • I’ve provided the historical examples of the slippery slope that resulted when the government was allowed to regulate content on a medium so it seems at best inaccurate to describe it as a fallacy.

            And as I said no one has made any claim that the need to prevent Russians from influence American elections is a bad idea.

            But to embrace a significant intrusion of government into online content without considering what’s happened when that was allowed before seems illogical and certainly unreasonable.

            History is full of “Ready, Fire, Aim” examples of poorly thought out legislation, passed in the heat of the time.

          • By the way, we haven’t even gotten into what happened once politicians were given the ability to regulate political advertising on TV and radio. They passed legislation REQUIRING broadcasters to sell them the ad time at the lowest possible rate AND took away the ability of broadcasters to regulate the content that appeared on their own stations.

            That’s why Barry Commoner was allowed to start his radio ad when he was running for president with the word “bullsh1t”.

  • Gary F

    Technology is moving too fast for the government to set up standards, then implement them, and then actually follow through and prosecute them. If its following campaign ads, by the time anyone could react to this and actually do something about it, the election is over.

    They will move to a different format, or game plan that gets around the rules. As soon as rules and standards will be decided on, the game plan will change.

    • jon

      Same argument different topic… laws don’t matter, no one follows them, no reason to have them…

      It’s like gun control all over again…

      • Gary F

        Laws are for the law abiding. People will always be trying to skirt them and evil people don’t care about laws.

        The government has to be able to enforce them and actually prosecute the laws if they are going to do any good. Passing laws because they feel good or makes it look like we are “doing something” and then not being able to enforce AND prosecute them, is not doing us any good.

        We don’t prosecute gun laws on the basic level anymore, they all get plea bargained down. So, yes, it is kinda like gun control.

      • It’s not, however, because the laws are followed and media censors itself to provide enough wiggle room to avoid having the government come calling.

        It’s not a good situation.

        • jon

          Laws are followed, and I’m not suggesting they aren’t, well sarcastically… maybe…

          But the broadcast media doesn’t have to deal with unregulated user generated content (exception to this comment section on newscut – or more bob has to deal with regulating our user generated content)

          And the broadcast media is tied to a geography, where the internet is very much not… I can go to the bbc and see advertising on there that doesn’t need to be regulated by US laws…

          Opens up an opportunity for the US to block international sites because they don’t’ follow US regulations… and then things get really messy, and we’ve got our own great firewall of china.

          • // unregulated user generated content

            Oh, they most certainly do. Hence the seven-second delay.

            Unfortunately, broadcasters are held responsible for the actions of the audience. Even if it’s a wardrobe malfunction. :*)

          • RBHolb

            // Even if it’s a wardrobe malfunction.

            The reaction to that always pissed me off, because Janet Jackson got all the blame for it. She didn’t grope herself, people.

            It’s worth remembering that the FCC is reactive, and goes after broadcasters only (?) when there are complaints made. If there are enough vocal objectors, the FCC investigates and applies its rather subjective standards. It’s hard for broadcasters to know in advance exactly what will be deemed inappropriate (although most of them could probably have a rough idea).

            I used to get the mail for my church when I lived in a small, rural community. Once in awhile, we got a newsletter devoted to decency on TV (it may have been called the “Decency Report;” I don’t recall). Each newsletter had a list of offensive programs to which one needed to register objections. Didn’t see the show? No problem! We’ll tell you the offensive part and, if you’re some kind of degenerate not bothered by jokes about hourly rates at motels, you were informed why you should find it offensive.

    • Chris

      I presume you think murder and heroin should be legal? There are plenty of lawless regions in the world but I don’t think you would prefer to live there.

      • Gary F

        If you can enforce and prosecute it, yes.

        Elections happen so fast, by the time you find someone breaking the law, actually investigate it, charge someone and actually prosecute it, the election is over, one side is happy, one side is mad, and we’ve moved on.

        The reason why these folks have gone to Facebook, its because its unregulated. Start regulating it, they will find another venue.

  • Guest

    I am a US citizen. I purchase ads all over the place advocating for X, which just happens to be what Putin wants, which just happens to be because we share the same view of the world.

    Everything looks like I bought it…….now who would know if Putin slipped me a bag of money to spread my views?????

    This is the same problem as allowing companies to purchase ads….but ONLY US companies can buy US political ads……but nobody knows who is handing bags of money to shell companies.

    We may THINK we accomplished a good thing, but with folks wiling to do whatever, they are more nimble than congress.

    sigh 🙁

  • BJ

    Let’s be clear about a couple of things. When AK says “If I buy a TV ad or a radio ad, then it has to be publicly registered — when the ad aired, who bought it….” That is not for political ads, that is for all ad’s – none of that is regulated by Federal Election Commission.

    Federal Election Commission only regulates Candidates, Candidate Committees, and other political Committees – and that regulation is in how much they raise and spend. And they have almost no power.

    A paid placement of a news stories is what Russia did. They didn’t run ad’s saying Hillary was bad, or DT was great. So this idea that she is pushing and yes very slippery slop.

    • Her Washington Post op-ed — at least the headline on it — seemed to include bots spreading fake news, though I couldn’t find a specific reference. That’s content. And that’s the pandora’s box that shouldn’t be opened.

      • theoacme

        I solve that by not trusting ANYONE in the Republican or the Democratic Parties, nor ANY corporation, nor ANY corporatively-organized religious organization of ANY denomination, nor ANY person that acts as an ardent apologist for any of these, to do any good for anyone except the rich and powerful.

        Ronald Reagan said “Trust, but verify…” – and I have verified that Facebook’s editorial and content decisions cannot be trusted, unless it involves cat videos…

        …and even then, I wonder if some Russians are trying to influence Facebook to get me to hate all-American cats, I mean, after all, Persian cats are Iranian, and they’re trying to get nucular weapons to destroy Israel, for God’s sake! ~ sarc ~

  • AL287

    Why have another government agency that doesn’t do its job?

    Put a law on the books that makes Facebook, Instagram and a host of others responsible for censoring ad sponsors and content. If they fail to monitor the bad actors put a hefty fine in place (and when I say hefty, I mean like one million dollars or more).

    An uncensored and unregulated Internet is what has caused the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks—radicalized Muslims committing acts of violence. Gee, I wonder how they got radicalized?

    You want to protest police brutality or income inequality, you’ll have to write a letter to the editor at the Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, etc.

    The era of I-have-a-right-to-say-whatever-I-want-whenever-I-want-to-wherever-I-want-to is long past. That was okay for the pre-digital age when we still had print news and only 4 major news networks.

    All of this started with AM talk radio and snowballed from there. If what you’re posting is insulting and disrespectful online it gets tagged for editorial review. It is up to Facebook and all the other social media sites to do what it takes to make online conversations and postings civil and respectful or face discipline from the government.

    I am not buying Mark Zuckerberg’s kumbaya attitude. If can eliminate its comment section so can other websites and that includes the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    • Karl Crabkiller

      And who exactly will be the censors? I have no doubt president Trump would be in favor of such a law – appoint Michelle Bachmann, Rep Steve King and Judge Roy Moore as overseers. They are in sync with “The era of I-have-a-right-to-say-whatever-I-want-whenever-I-want-to-wherever-I-want-to is long past.”

      • Keep in mind, the government has already taken a run at regulating the speech of doctors in private conversations with patients.

    • I think AK suggested that the FEC would be doing the work of enforcement, not a new agency. But to get the the bigger point you are making here, this is indeed a digital age and far more complexities are evolving as a result. Early 20th century regulations are so out of step with the new reality that they are silly, as Bob points out with the wardrobe malfunction comment. The fact of the matter is that the internet has become a free-for-all where anything goes. By its nature it favors multiple interconnects and redundancy that work automatically to make it robust. We have seen it gobble up publishing, broadcasting, gaming, entertainment, music, photography, commerce, and pretty much everything related to personal communications. It is an overbearing monster that hides in a pocket or purse while amassing terabytes of data on its users, that it might better sell us more crap or – more darkly – buy our elections, weaken our common resolve by destroying civility and promoting division, recruit terrorists, spread deadly nonsense like anti vaxxer hokum, promote criminal activities of all sorts over the dark web, and on and on.

      So here’s the thing: I read the WAPO article and listened to the audio link. AK did mention the $1.4B, but in context it was clear to me that she was doing so to highlight the scope of the potential problem, not as a reason to regulate. For the clearest statement on her position, the WAPO article is the better one, and I find it reasonable to hold these online ad buys to a reasonable standard.

      As for content regulation, what can one say? Do anything you want? Anything? I don’t think so. Some countries do regulate internet speech, perhaps to maintain an odious regime’s hold on power, but others to keep toxic hate from damaging society.

      Here in the USA we will struggle with this for the foreseeable future, but ponder the absolutist view of the NRA on the Second Amendment and ask yourself if holding an absolutist view on the First Amendment is really the right thing to do.

      • // Here in the USA we will struggle with this for the foreseeable future, but ponder the absolutist view of the NRA on the Second Amendment and ask yourself if holding an absolutist view on the First Amendment is really the right thing to do.

        Clearly, nobody does, otherwise broadcasters would get the same First Amendment protections afforded newspapers.

        I would argue that the First Amendment is FAR more absolutist on language than the Second Amendment, and it is nowhere near as literally interpreted as the second.

        Personally, I would very much LOVE it if the total horror of a mass shooting could be relayed by broadcasters, which includes the horrifying words the victims speak. I don’t like the idea of the government sanitizing that. I don’t see how that strengthens democracy .

        • RBHolb

          “I would argue that the First Amendment is FAR more absolutist on language than the Second Amendment, and it is nowhere near as literally interpreted as the second.”

          I used to tell my students that First Amendment jurisprudence is made up almost entirely of exceptions to the absolutist words “shall make no law.”

        • AL287

          I watched a PBS special on the news reporting of the Kennedy assassination last night on Amazon Prime.

          It was a very striking contrast to how news is “vetted” today. Walter Cronkite refused to broadcast live that the president was dead until he had official confirmation from Washington. Anything prior to the official announcement was said to be speculation as such.

          TV and radio broadcasters back in the day double and triple checked their sources before any news report went “live.”

          There was the same competition to get the scoop first only integrity and honesty was in the mix.

          The “news” of today is a sad and sorry cry from the real journalism that was the norm and the standard in the days of Cronkite, Brinkley, Huntley, Reasoner, Chancellor and Jennings.

          Now people only care about the “who” not the when, how, where and why.

          • You should swing my our newsroom sometime and spend a day watching people check and doublecheck stuff.

            What’s changed, of course, is there are information sources — TMZ for example — which are being thrown into the the definition of “the news today.”

            BTW, when Cronkite reported the death, he described it as APPARENTLY official.

          • AL287

            Why do you think I get my news from MPR and PBS?

            They “apparently” are the only news organizations that report the news fairly and honestly.

            It would be a real treat to watch your reporters doing what they do best.

        • “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

          It depends. I’m with the ACLU on this kind of thing more often than not, but much of the ambiguity arises over whether new media are “press”, not just what constitutes “speech”. And confusion abounds over the first part of the amendment, as to what constitutes a religion and how far its adherents can push outrageous and sometimes deadly practices on others. Absolutists can argue that child porn is “speech”. Religious nuts can withhold insulin from their diabetic children. We don’t allow either, and rightly so.

          This is a good idea, and I’m definitely down with it: “I would very much LOVE it if the total horror of a mass shooting could be relayed by broadcasters, which includes the horrifying words the victims speak.”

  • Rob

    The freedom to post and spread bogus stories online should indeed be held sacrosanct. The Googles, Facebooks, Instagrams, Twitters, et al of our benighted Interweb should be under no obligation – whether self-imposed or government mandated – to do anything about it. ‘Cuz democracy.

    • Maybe one answer is to require classes on critical thinking in schools.

      • Rob

        Necessary, but not sufficient.