Radio came of age in the 1930s. While listeners devoured dramas of the Lone Ranger rescuing damsels in distress, they also hoped happy days would come again when they heard President Franklin Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats. Meanwhile an Iowan named Ronald Reagan was enchanted by the magical sounds of radio. After college graduation, he jumped at the chance to take the latest new-media job: a sportscaster on radio.
TV’s magic was just as captivating. By the 1960s, most everyone had a boxy television set in their livings rooms and ugly antennas on their rooftops. Though FDR was the first president to appear on TV when it was a futuristic novelty, John F. Kennedy was the first to leverage it to his advantage.
But unlike the Internet in 2010, Americans delighted in the content of early radio and TV without participating in it.
Today, average Americans aren't just consuming Internet content, they’re creating it. That's why the FCC's recent regulation or “network neutrality” of the Internet is a slippery slope, setting a concerning precedent that goes beyond the licensing of radio and TV stations of the past. It has the potential to strike at the individual free-flowing nature of the Internet by allowing service providers to put a price on content.
What makes the Internet distinctly different from its radio and TV predecessors is its interactivity and direct impact on individual liberty. No other media has allowed Americans so many choices and different ways to speak freely and exercise their rights to freedom of speech and press—and to do so cheaply.
Though Americans consumed the news and dramas they heard on the radio and TV of yesteryear, they didn't participate in it like they do on the Internet. Back then the primary way to control the content of radio or TV was to turn the channel—off, on or over to the next station. It didn’t cost you a dime to do so. Not only can you click away to another Internet site, you can also create words and pictures and post them yourself.
Masses of Americans could watch TV in the 1960s but individuals could not create a public video as they can on YouTube today. Sure they could write letters to their local newspaper editor in 1960. But you and I can voice our opinions instantly and publically about any news story that irks or excites us through blogs and comment features, such as those on Fox News Opinion and others.
The FCC was originally created to regulate radio licenses, which directly impacted broadcast companies and stations. The effect on individuals was intangible and indirect. When the FCC regulated how frequently a radio news broadcasting company like CBS could break-in to regular programming on a local affiliate, the impact on the average American was a matter of timing: hearing national news at 5 PM instead of earlier in the day interrupting a soap opera. The cost to the listener didn’t change. Because of commercial sponsors, the content was still “free.”
Giving service providers the option of putting prices on the types of content users view may restrict the medium’s greatest advantage: its free-flowing river of ideas and reservoir of information at a cheap cost. By allowing providers to price which content you access, the FCC might eventually be able to put a price on what you post, too, which could lead to censorship.
A young Philadelphia entrepreneur working in the new-media of 1722—the printing press—wrote: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.” Benjamin Franklin was right then, and he is right today.
Americans deserve to keep the Internet as it was intended. The less the federal government intrudes on the Internet today, the more individual liberty flows freely down the road of tomorrow.
Jane Hampton Cook is the author of "What Does the President Look Like?" and five other books on American history. She is a former White House webmaster to President George W. Bush. For more visit her website: www.Janecook.com.
Jane Hampton Cook is an award-winning author and a former White House webmaster. The author of nine books her latest is "The Burning of the White House: James & Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." For more, visit her website, janecook.com.