Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Stewardship of Media Content in the Internet Age


Today we began our Summer 2008 Aspen Institute Socrates Society seminars. My session, moderated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, addresses Media and Our Conflicting Values. And plenty of conflicting values emerged in our lively four hour discussion.

My takeaways after Day 1:

* The function of the FCC as public trustee, or steward, of the content broadcast by licensed content creators in America has been made largely irrelevant by the Internet. Historical approaches to media regulation in America are not useful in addressing the challenges of today and of the future, in my opinion.

* We live in a many-to-many world of content generation and broadcasting. The super-empowered individual on the Web wields disproportionate power over groups ranging from a small affinity circle to an entire society.

*Large media organizations also continue to wield huge power in disseminating information and in ‘spinning’ or biasing content. While the Founding Fathers saw Government control of media/propaganda as the primary threat to free speech, we now live in a brave new world where any fanatic can wrap him or herself in the mantle of truth and spread lies unchecked.

* Defining regulatory boundaries is infinitely more complex when you have a multiplicity of transport mechanisms for different forms of protected free speech from a First Amendment perspective: for example, traditional linear over the air broadcast television, cable television, user-generated content on the web, and newly emerging forms of time-shifting content distribution (what I want when I want it on any device).

* Regulation of speech in any way raises fundamental societal challenges to open, democratic societies.

* The social contract of any democracy faces a basic tension between freedom and maintaining social order.

* Technology combined with human innovation in the media are exacerbating this tension in ways considered impossible just fifteen years ago.

So after Day 1 I have a lot of questions:

When it comes to regulating media and the web, how are we to decide the mechanisms for regulation?
Are we to expect the market to self-regulate? How do we distinguish between content that the market should self-regulate (various forms of entertainment) from content that debases and violates basic human rights (sexual slavery and child pornography on the Web)? How do we stop groups that re-write history (such as Holocaust deniers) from simply opening up shop on the Web and perpetuating lies? How do we prevent false stories about political candidates from being seen and accepted as fact by millions of people prior to elections?

Maybe I’ll have some answers, and certainly more questions, after Day 2. This is why we love the Socratic method. For another perspective on the Socrates Seminars, check out Sam Perry’s post on Conferenza.

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