The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t enjoy a reputation for being particularly cluey or particularly interested in issues relating to free speech. During the infamous Janet Jackson ‘Nipplegate’ incident at the 2005 Super Bowl commissioners fell over each other to see who could appear more outraged by the brief glimpse of a partially-bared Jackson breast.
“Americans should not have to tolerate such a gratuitous display of nudity” one commissioner remarked. (Many of them were apparently prepared to: Nipplegate was the most rewatched moment ever on Tivo.)
Yet even with that “rack and ruin” approach the FCC has managed to work something out that continues to elude the Australian government: trying to impose censorship on Internet networks is a particularly stupid idea.
For some time current FCC chair Kevin Martin has been promoting a proposal for licensing a basic free wireless broadband network across the US making use of currently unutilised 3G spectrum. The plan is partly controversial for technical reasons with existing carriers complaining about the potential for interference.
However the biggest roadblock in the original plan was a proposal to ensure that the network would not be allowed to transmit “obscenity or pornography”. As well as being technically difficult to implement that also led to opposition from civil liberties advocates.
Fortunately for stateside Internet surfers Martin seems to have moved on from his 2005 reaction to Nipplegate when he was “dismayed and disappointed” and recognised that trying to bar online smut is counter-productive. In an interview with Ars Technica he confirmed that the proposal had now dropped any censorship requirement leaving the issue to be decided on its technical merits rather than getting bogged down in the impossible task of trying to work out what might be allowed on the network.
“A lot of public interest advocates have said they would support this but were concerned about the filter” Martin said. “Well now there’s an item in front of the Commissioners and it no longer has the filter.”
While the plan isn’t identical to the Australian government’s “clean feed” proposal there are some notable parallels. In particular Martin’s scheme is designed to provide a basic wireless network for access by all Americans – a cable-free equivalent of Australia’s proposed National Broadband Network albeit at much slower speeds.
Despite widespread concerns and public protests broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy has yet to acknowledge the apparent contradiction between promising faster Internet access and at the same time trying to filter everything that travels down those pipes. Indeed the plans have been expanded to include P2P transmissions. Perhaps Kelly could give him a call and explain the benefits of an open Internet infrastructure.