April 13, 2007

Imus Today, YouTube Tomorrow?

Greetings. I've never been a fan of John Donald "Don" Imus, Jr., nor of most other "shock jocks" who have paralleled his radio career in various ways -- some of whom have taken their own (not always permanent) falls from the airwaves. I personally find the sort of baiting that is so frequently the staple of their programs to be distasteful, a coarsening of dialogue that pushes society ever farther into yelling at each other rather than having reasonable discussions.

Be that as it may, I find Imus' own sudden fall to be particularly disturbing as a possible harbinger of major Internet risks to come, particularly affecting free speech.

Broadcasting giants like NBC and CBS are of course free to make whatever legal business decisions they see fit, however hypocritical they may seem in this case, given the continuing flow of hateful music lyrics that bring in the big bucks and cause Imus' now notorious comment to pale by comparison.

So was it really concern about ethics that drove the networks' decisions, or rather a much more straightforward business calculation about threatened boycotts driven by solemn-sounding speeches by the self-proclaimed "masters of morality" -- loudly demanding advertiser and even FCC action? That some of the most visible personages calling for Imus' blood have themselves closets full of hateful skeletons didn't seem to matter as the 24-hour news cycle ramped up the volume.

But this is all but a single note in a much more nightmarish tune that is starting to take shape. The morality guardians are pushing the envelope in every direction, and even well-meaning beginnings could easily turn toward theocratical oppression, particularly where the Internet is concerned.

Farfetched? Let's keep recent history in mind. We've seen forces inside and outside of government pushing DOJ and the FCC for ever broader regulation of "dirty words" and "wardrobe malfunctions" -- working hard to "protect" us from the evils of sexual thoughts, while the blood continues to flow freely in Iraq. Indeed, there are many ways to define obscenity.

But we're also hearing calls to expand regulation beyond obscenity to include "racist," "hateful," or "sexist" speech, and not just on the broadcast airwaves but on cable and satellite as well.

Once we've made that leap -- or even before -- the Internet will be even more directly in the crosshairs, and the most obvious targets will be the biggest ones -- the video sites like Google's YouTube, and even the search engine and caching functions of Google itself and similar competing operations. Even arguing that one is merely organizing information in the case of search engines will never satisfy those who would attempt to impose ever broader censorship in the name of popular morality.

Keep in mind that the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) is still bouncing around in the courts, and may someday bounce out into the real world with a devastating dumbing down and eviscerating of many U.S. Internet sites, at least those operating openly.

This goes far beyond sex and morality wars. We're seeing increasing cases of government-imposed censorship attempts, sometimes of an international reach. Thailand and Turkey are two very recent examples, and "offensive" YouTube materials are now becoming a popular target of removal demands from national governments, based on their local sensibilities. Attempts to block Internet materials of course involve other countries as well, most notably China, despite the inefficacy of such efforts in the long run, given the mutability of the Internet and the ease with which underground sites can be established.

But that's not to say that this rush toward censorship won't be incredibly disruptive even as it leaks profusely, as various targets will be chosen for prosecutorial or other damaging attention to "be made examples of" for the education of the masses.

Perhaps we've seen the first clear inkling of how that might come to pass as we review the case of Imus, for in his fall we clearly see the forces of censorship girding their loins for action, and nailing Imus, for all his faults and distasteful comments over the years, to a cross that was hastily erected in opportunistic glee.

We can be sure that there's plenty more wood and nails being collected and made ready, so long as we allow ourselves to be bullied by those who would disintegrate ever more aspects of our precious free speech, in the name of their own perceived righteousness.


Posted by Lauren at April 13, 2007 10:18 PM | Permalink
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