Group single-handedly seeks to change Internet as we know it

Andrew Keen Contributor
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As the paragon of technological and business innovation, the Internet has been the most significant generator of economic wealth in America over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, fringe groups seeking to stifle creativity in a blizzard of government red tape are now threatening this economic engine. These groups want the government to federalize the Internet and nationalize innovation.

If advocacy groups like Free Press are successful in their crusade to enforce big-government regulation of the Internet, lovers of bureaucratic inertia everywhere should take heart. Free Press now stands almost alone in pressing for the most draconian version of “net neutrality” rules. Prohibitions on harmful or anti-competitive behavior are not enough; Free Press demands crippling regulations that go much farther.

For the past 20 years, administrations on both the left and right have backed a hands-off policy that has enabled the Internet to evolve and thrive with only the most modest government involvement. Other early advocates of net neutrality, including Internet pioneers like Google and Amazon, have recognized the success of this approach and now back an eminently sensible light touch on net neutrality that would limit government’s role to oversight and protecting consumer’s rights. By contrast, Free Press charges forward in its over the top bid to purge the Internet of the for-profit large and small media companies that have made the digital world such a rich source of American wealth creation.

Where Google’s Washington, D.C., Counsel Richard Whitt urges “some minimal oversight over broadband networks,” Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney suggests that what we really need to do is “get rid of the media capitalists” and turn the Internet into a “public utility.” McChesney says government should spend $60 billion to subsidize the news industry and require content to be free.

Where Amazon and Microsoft alike reasonably suggest that regulators should make sure that network operators do not harm consumers or thwart competition, Free Press has launched a high pressure campaign to harangue FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to abandon the FCC’s traditional light touch and begin regulating the Internet with a hammer.

While Genachowski carefully studies alternative options that respect the court judgment, a Free Press-backed website has posted a ticking doomsday clock that counts down every second of the chairman’s careful deliberations. The website’s high-pressure tactics chastise him for leaving the Internet “unprotected”, while Free Press Managing Director Craig Aaron complains that Mr. Genachowski “has hemmed, hawed, and hedged” since the court ruling—as if taking time to think carefully about the future of the American new media economy is an indecency.

Though styling themselves as voices of the consumer, Free Press has pursued radical policies that threaten American jobs, turns a deaf ear to complaints of illegal digital theft, and threatens new business models that give writers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers and other creators the opportunity to earn fair compensation for their labor.

In response to virtually any plan by the creative community to provide other models for online services as an alternative to pirated content, Free Press complains that creators are just “protecting their turf”—as if creators have no rights and the Internet is a magical device that makes their work free.

Publishing and broadcasting account for more than a million American skilled jobs that could be enhanced by the global distribution power of the Internet. Unfortunately, Free Press has not offered ideas to generate market innovation in the American economy. Indeed, while entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley invest their time in developing new business models that will generate new media jobs and wealth, Mr. McChesney and his Free Press co-founder, John Nichols, say Congress should bring the same urgency to media “reform” (ie: bureaucratization and nationalization) as it accords to terrorism and financial collapse.

Indeed, the group is so out of step with the mainstream interests of most Americans, it is hard to fathom who might be listening or why any thoughtful policymaker should take any account at all of Free Press’ ideological hostility to business innovation, for-profit media companies and basic creative rights.

Searching for political comparisons to Free Press, draws me more than forty years back—ironically to a man of the free-market right, Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, who proclaimed that “extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice.” Free Press flips this radical libertarian mantra on its head and advocates “extremism in the pursuit of big government.”

Fortunately, America soundly rejected Goldwater’s uncompromisingly ideological extremism. Today, 40 years later, we should reject a similarly ideological Free Press’ fanaticism, which seeks to stifle innovation and wealth-creation.

The Internet is doing quite nicely, thank you very much, without Free Press’ prescription for the government’s heavy interventionist hand. Over the past 20 years, American politicians of both parties have pursued a sensible policy of minimizing government control and involvement in new media and online technology. Let’s keep it that way by rejecting the destructive “reforms” of men like Robert McChesney and John Nichols.

Andrew Keen is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the author of the international hit “CULT OF THE AMATEUR: How the Internet is killing our culture.”