SANDY DAVIDSON: If the number of voices declines, truth may be lost

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Sandy Davidson is a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a Curators’ Teaching Professor at MU and is an attorney for the Missourian.

In late May, I attended the International Communications Association’s annual convention in Prague. What a beautiful city! It wasn’t bombed by Hitler and retains its ancient charm. I stayed in an apartment building in the old city, and some of its walls were 3 feet thick.

The topic of the convention was “Voices.” But I got frozen out by an over-zealous air conditioner in a convention room at the Old Hilton on Sunday, May 27, so I left the meeting, crossing through the city and over the St. Charles Bridge to attend the English-language service at the St. Thomas Church.

That Catholic church was founded in 1228, but the edifice was rebuilt in Baroque style in 1727-1731.

The sunlight streaming through the massive stained-glass windows onto the ornate statuary was awe-inspiring. But its beauty was made even more extraordinary by its fairly recent history: Forty years ago, while Prague was under Soviet control, the incredible church was used as a BARN!

I’m an animal lover, but housing animals in St. Thomas Church? The affront to religion under the Soviets is hard to imagine.

After the service, I talked to a Dominican priest from the United States who is doing a documentary film on the Soviet period of the church’s history, and he told me that the Soviets had pitched out priceless manuscripts, including some dating to the 14th century. While some manuscripts were later recovered, many were lost.

I admit that while he was speaking, I was thinking of the ancient Mayans and the destruction of their manuscripts (codices) by Catholic priests in the 16th century.

But I didn’t mention Mayans. After all, it wasn’t this priest’s fault, and he’s clearly trying to preserve history through film making.

Too many attempts to silence voices have been made through the centuries, and I fear that those attempts continue.

No, I’m not thinking about Roseanne Barr in particular, although some conservatives think that a double standard exists, with liberal comedian Samantha Bee’s TV show so far surviving after she referred to Ivanka Trump by a very offensive term.

Racist and foul-mouthed voices aren’t ones I care to hear, but one fear I have is that abolition of net neutrality in the United States will ultimately limit some valuable voices. The principle of net neutrality is simply one of equality of access for having one’s voice heard over the internet.

On April 23, the Federal Communications Commission formally ended net neutrality as something it can enforce, saying it’s returning to “light-touch” regulation of broadband internet access providers.

A quick history of net neutrality needs to include a 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Verizon v. FCC. The court smacked the FCC’s hands, saying the FCC had categorized broadband providers as “information services” but then was violating the law.

The Communications Act of 1934 only permits light regulation of information services. Instead, the FCC was treating broadband providers like “common carriers” – like utilities – and regulating them more heavily than the law allowed if broadband providers really were “information services.” Oops!

Verizon v. FCC struck down two parts of the FCC’s regulatory scheme, namely, the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules. These rules aimed, in the court’s words, “to compel broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic the same....”

But in 2015, the FCC, then controlled 3-2 by Democrats, maneuvered its way around the court’s ruling. The commission simply recategorized broadband carriers as common carriers.

Voila! The FCC could then legally impose its anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules on broadband providers.

Then came Trump’s 2016 victory. Ajit Pai became FCC chair, and he and his Republican FCC majority decided on Dec. 14 to again recategorize broadband providers – from common carriers back to information services.

In the Federal Register on Feb. 22, the FCC said: “In this document, the Federal Communications Commission ... returns to the light-touch regulatory scheme that enabled the internet to develop and thrive for nearly two decades. The Commission restores the classification of broadband internet access service as a lightly-regulated information service....”

Calling this the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” the FCC set the order’s “effective date” as April 23.

The FCC’s majority isn’t worried that the internet as we know it will cease to exist. In the Federal Register, the FCC said its order “requires internet service providers ... to disclose information about their network management practices, performance characteristics, and commercial terms of service.” Further, the FCC said that it finds that “transparency is sufficient to protect the openness of the internet....”

In short, the FCC will follow the light-touch regulation required by law for information services, meaning the FCC can’t enforce anti-discrimination or anti-blocking rules, and it will bank on “transparency” requirements as a talisman of sorts to ensure an open internet.

Of course, the FCC’s decision doesn’t mean that the doctrine of net neutrality will necessarily disappear from our communications landscape, but it does put us plebians at the tender mercies of our broadband internet service providers.

If these “information services” want to discriminate or block, the FCC isn’t positioned to intervene.

Attorneys general from more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have filed suit against the FCC. So the legal machinery will grind away, perhaps even eventually overturning the FCC’s recent order.

If internet service providers engage in discrimination and blocking, then some voices may be lost. The marketplace of ideas may shrink. Pai doesn’t think that will happen.

Where does the truth lie?

“Truth,” by the way, was the topic of the sermon when I attended church in Prague. The priest delivering the sermon spoke of “fake news” and the difficulty of determining the truth, which is exacerbated by the many voices on the internet, some of which aim to obfuscate or mislead. He spoke of finding the truth through community.

I’m glad I got frozen out of the conference session. I don’t want to claim it was divine intervention, but.... The priest’s sermon hit on topics of the conference – on voices and truth – and then focused on community.

The sermon left me in an optimistic frame of mind that we still can, with each other’s help, determine where truth lies.

On the other hand, the FCC’s net-neutrality decision gives me pause. If the community of voices shrinks, perhaps voices bearing truth will be lost.

Sandy Davidson, Ph.D., J.D., teaches communications law at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor and the attorney for the Columbia Missourian.

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