The Rise and Fall Of America’s Unregulated Internet

America gave birth to the Internet. Created in the 1970’s by the U.S. Defense Department, its use drifted to academia and then started to take off in an entrepreneurial, libertarian private sector of the 1990’s among those who thought it might be something, someday. Upon this apparently dubious ground, they placed their financial bets.

At first, it was viewed as a novelty where you could exchange emails and pin messages on so-called white boards.  Even gathering news through a collection point, like the Drudge Report, (a U.S. based news aggregation website) or from reluctant main stream media who gave it away from free to a dubiously small and not likely profitable audience.  

US Government (USG) regulation was sparse during this period.  When the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed – the first change of telecom in 60 years to enable greater competition in the industry - the Internet was mentioned in passing.

Early Internet lobbying groups wanted what protection from litigation against them because of false or defamatory information place on their sites. They got what they asked for as a way to encourage growth and competition in a nascent era in which growth projections were not encouraging.

Flash forward twenty-four years, and you have a different world in which the Internet and its social media play a dominant, and often disruptive role, in international trade and politics with over 4 billion users – half the planet. 

Two US presidential elections have been impacted heavily by issues of “fake news” and rumor spreading that used to be confined to Third World elections and internationally based Cold War type propaganda programs. Now, the combination of legal protection and the laissez faire attitude of social media companies seems both anachronistic and harmful. And our lackadaisical concern about cyber security seems ridiculous.

Regulation Comes 

The days of the regulation are upon us for social media content, and the overall operations of the Internet itself. The difference between the Trump Administration approach and the Biden Administration will not likely be great - the ongoing programs will likely strengthen and the desire to come to grips with unregulated security and content will increase as political upsets increases with a social media wracked by extreme politics, misinformation, and balkanization of interests and a failed system to make it secure.

The USG is already looking at organizational sizes for anti-trust and putting forward a number of government programs from the Defense Department and Homeland Security which focus on protecting and upgrading the security in an information system woefully inadequate to handle such. 

Moreover, it is increasing its policing efforts within the Internet with the FBI and Homeland Security - in cooperation with the Intelligence - again expanding large scale programs to reach out to the provide sector to provide them supportive information and deal comprehensively with attack. It is seriously considering EU style rules on the use, storage and sale of information it gathers - a prime revenue source.

As for social media content, the providers did get the message after the 2016 elections that, like it or not, the “public square” they created has a seedy and manipulated side that pollutes the information provided and potentially poisons the news which the sites use for “eyes on site, click bait” and thus revenue to the sale of this information. 

Particularly sensitive to the election issue, the social media’s 2020 election behavior saw well developed programs of self-policing and unprecedented cooperation with the USG entities overseeing the vote.

Whither Content?

After several bashings on Capitol Hill of the social media leadership in 2020, they recognize there is a big problem.  And, by their own reluctant admission are willing to let the USG set some regulation for them.  The hearings that will be certainly held in the next Congress on this regulation are going to be brutal as an industry that favors light regulations and views the Congress with disdain runs into increasingly angry legislatures and power of Washington DC.

Advocates are pushing to drop the provision of the Telecommunications Act that protects the social media, and further allow regulation of the content through an USG organization like the Federal Communications Commission.  Whatever happens for regulation - and there will be regulation - the issue of the First Amendment freedom of speech will be hovering over all of this.  

Bottom Line:  The “halcyon” days of so-called Internet “freedom” in the US are gone. It is now only a question of how heavy the regulation will be.  Both security and content will be heavily overseen by the USG as the body politic will accept nothing else.

Ronald Marks  is President of ZPN Cyber & National Security Strategies

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