Thursday, September 27, 2007

ISPs as utilites

Charlie at The Great Divide and the King at SCSU Scholars have been conducting a regrettably civil discussion on the subject of the effects of government versus corporate action in restraining civil liberties such as free speech. Here's a bit from Charlie:

The King and I have a bit of a back and forth going in the comments section which I have left there in case it is getting too off in the weeds. I have little enough interest in my own arguments, so I don't expect you to show up and cheer for my increasingly esoteric points.

But still, a little more.

What King and I have both done is restated the other's arguments in ways with which the speaker doesn't agree. I did it with this:

But I find it extremely comical that an economist can overlook how corporations enjoy the protections of government — particularly through lobbying, political back scratching and the courts.

Then King responded:

Good heavens, no. I don't overlook it. I call it "rent-seeking" and I abhor it. [NOTE: Don't bother clicking on his link unless you have 10 bucks or you're an academic with a JSTOR account.] Economists have long recognized its existence and the inefficiency of it. Where Charlie and I might disagree is how to cure it.

And he returned the favor:

He would argue that there are not enough government restrictions on economic activity and seek political solutions to put more on.

And here's a little bit from King "free the money" Banaian in a comment to the post:

I will also note that AOL or any other ISP is under no obligation to provide you a forum for your political views, and this was the original point. They are engaged in commerce.

The whole thing started, apparently, because some liberal/progressive organization's blanket emails were being blocked by Charlie's ISP. The King, of course, find this perfectly acceptable because, as the King puts it, because the ISPs are "engaged in commerce." Well, that explains everything! Charlie, Spot doesn't know how you're still standing after that withering broadside!

Of course, if you follow the King's foolish argument to its logical extension, railroads could decide to limit or arrange their stops to limit some of their carriers' competition; telephone companies could decide not to provide service to some customers because they were just too much trouble; gas and electric utilities could do the same.

 Spot wants to quote John Ralson Saul (again) discussing the fate of another quasi-utility: television. Here's Saul writing in the early 90s:

The invention of the video cassette seemed to create a new element of freedom. A cassette is no more difficult to smuggle or hide than a book. Now, even in the most restrictive dictatorships, the elites who travel abroad return with cassettes. But only people rich enough to travel and to own a VCR are involved; people rich or powerful enough to ensure that they can watch the cassettes in absolute privacy.

The blatant controls enforced in some countries encourage us to think that the problem does not apply in the West. Yet in some ways our problem is worse. Nothing can appear on any of our screens without large inputs of cash from either advertisers or governments. Almost from the beginning the advertisers understood that, while they could not dictate content, it was easy to block whatever they didn't want on the air. All they had to do was not advertise it. Attempts by some networks to disarm this, pressure by selling block advertising not assigned to specific programs has tended simply to obscure the problem by forcing advertisers to be more subtle when they apply pressure. The intelligent master never forbids. He shapes things in order to avoid undermining his own interests and to avoid open conflict. Television advertisers understand this and have therefore become the champions of inconsequential entertainment.

Meanwhile, throughout much of Europe, government fenders understood from the beginning that they held controlling power. The result — in contrast to the early freedom on public television in a few countries such as the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Canada and Australia — was organized propaganda, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. But even those few arm's-length governments gradually tired of being criticized by state corporations which exercised electronic free speech. Politicians began to respond with clumsy personal attacks on specific television programs and journalists, accusing them of antigovernment bias. This approach tended to backfire because it reminded the public of the 1930s, which had begun with governmental righteous indignation against free speech and ended with dictatorships across Europe. Governments therefore turned to bureaucratic manipulation. Budget restraints and political appointments proved so effective that producers soon understood there was little or no funding for real and sustained criticism. That was already the situation on private networks.
This atmosphere gradually created self-censorship, first among management and then among senior production staff. They found them selves becoming ever-more careful and ever-more "balanced," until they began to take extreme "care" each time a public issue arose.

But those who hold power already have an advantage over both the opposition and the press, which is why serious journalists have always tended towards a critical approach which seeks out faults. Governments and corporations have budgets and experts permanently assigned to the preparation of arguments designed to contradict all unfavourable judgments. These professional answers, when placed in opposition to most criticism, will at least create confusion and, at their most successful, cancel out the effect of the attack. Rigorous balance, when applied to television, gives a permanent advantage to those in power.
Nevertheless, budgetary and political manipulations are a complicated way to control freedom of speech. The solution has therefore increasingly been to commercialize television. After all, what attracts advertisers to television is precisely its ritualistic, reassuring smoothness.

Shocking and unsettling programs do not provide an effective background for marketing products. Distinctive programming detracts from, the surrounding ads. What the sponsor seeks can be seen in the fact that ads are played at a higher sound level than the programs. On a scale of one to ten, programs vary from occasional silence to moments of maximum noise, but they run at average levels of four to six. Commercials are recorded at seven to eight, well above the program average. And while program sound fluctuates, ads hold a constant level for thirty seconds. This makes them seem even louder. The more commercial the overall television system, the more these ads tend towards eight or nine, as in the United States. But even at seven they are the dominant sound.

Ritual is a continuous and repetitive background phenomenon. Thus most programming is the background for commercial messages. The per-second production costs — what the industry calls "production values" — of advertisements are far higher than those of programming. In fact, most commercials are better television than the programs they finance, thanks to richer colour, more camera work and snappier scripting. If there is some benefit to be derived from dramatic surprise, it is saved for the advertiser.

Television networks are all about commerce, too. The network executives may have a political point of view, but part of what they are interested in is just making the whole thing run smoothly and avoiding controversy and maximizing their return. The same thing is true with the ISPs.

And that, boys and girls, is why is is foolish to think that private business will ever look out for the public weal. Some activities are so important and so necessary that we must ensure their access to all citizens. We call these things utilities. Spot cannot go out an find another gas company, nor is there much practical choice among the ISPs in the present climate.

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