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Just How Free is Freedom of Expression?
[ Issue 152 Page 9 ] Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 22:47:01 Wan Ju Kang Senior Staff Reporter soarhigh@kaist.ac.kr

New forms of media require new regulations to keep up with them in order for the law to continue protecting the public interest. However, keeping up with the pace of technological advancements makes things much more difficult. After centuries of monitoring the print press, the radio, the television, and the resources necessary to produce, distribute, and consume content through them, governments and regulatory bodies around the world are facing yet another mind-boggling question: just how unbounded should the freedom of expression possibly be on the Internet? In addressing the controversy, the following paragraphs explore the objectives and challenges of media regulation in the 21st century with trending topics, including net neutrality, media consolidation, and privacy.

Despite being home to the Internet, US took over 60 years to come up with a major telecommunications law overhaul and take into account the rapid expansion of the web and the astronomical amount of media consumption on it. In fact, the foundation of Amazon and eBay preceded the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was a badly needed replacement for the anachronistic Communications Act of 1934. The gist of the new act is to allow any American to enter the communications business, under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Little did policymakers realize that this very freedom of access to the communications business would give rise to the hotly debated buzzword coined in 2003: net neutrality, which states that service providers must treat content equally, giving equal opportunities to different content providers, data streams, and bandwidths. Because anyone could be streaming videos, writing blog posts, uploading soundtracks, or torrenting movies, there needed to be a guarantee that service providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, or non-harmful devices. Imagine a biased Internet, where portal site B loads faster than portal site A, just because B sponsors the Internet service provider; net neutrality seems only befitting to a medium with an unprecedentedly convenient access.

Media consolidation is a looming cloud over the media horizon. It refers to the crisscrossed mergers and acquisitions between and among content producers and providers. It is oftentimes deemed problematic because it fools media consumers into thinking that they have a vast array of choices when in fact, for example, six corporations control 90% of the media in the US — be it the radio, the television, the movies, or web portals. For instance, when CNN, Time, and Warner Bros. are owned by a single corporation, a greater number of television channels or magazine brands does not necessarily translate well into a diversity of perspectives. Korea is suffering an arguably worse problem, wherein the three biggest newspapers each set up a television broadcast station, each of which has been presenting political views that are mostly consistent with its parent company. Not surprisingly, the stations have been contributing very little to the overall diversity in news media, despite the net increase in the number of broadcast stations. Meanwhile, the two cornerstones of US antitrust laws — the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act and the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act — have been very loosely enforced by the FCC, and the resulting situation has been repeatedly criticized, notably in a 2011 paper from Northwestern University, “Why more antitrust immunity for the media is a bad idea”. Doubting the effectivity of existing antitrust laws, the late Professor Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania has even foreseen the need for “designing new and creative legislation in lieu of attempting to fit into old antitrust laws”.

Given how the Internet is a free platform for multi-way interaction and a free portal of user data collection more than any television or radio has ever been before, protecting the privacy of users should be of utmost concern for the Internet. To practice, however, seems far more challenging than it is to preach. In a 2010 debate opinion criticizing Facebook’s now-revoked updates on privacy policies, Edward E. Felten, a computer science professor at Princeton University, calls today’s web a “privacy theater”, where users pretend having read the terms of service and web sites pretend that users make informed decisions after having read the privacy notices. This is an awfully relevant scenario for Internet users here and abroad. In fact, the April 2014 issue of The KAIST Herald has covered Korea’s nationwide personal information leaks caused by credit card issuers with lousy privacy protection schemes. The US isn’t doing much better, with its Privacy Act of 1974 stipulating the governance of the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information, later only to be circumvented by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, misused by the now-whistle- blown security agencies to conduct mass surveillance on civilians.

Freedom of expression in today’s media are bounded in a variety of aspects — and for understandable reasons. An overly lenient regulation of media may result in too much power in the hands of service providers so that they may choose to bias the content distribution; a haphazard supervision of the communications business may exacerbate the oligopolistic nature of the media market and deprive media consumers of greater choice and variety; a well-protected privacy is a thin line away from staying in the hood of anonymity, unjustifiably empowering Internet criminals. Beyond the borders of the legal framework lie ethical issues — a proving ground for everyone to be mature producers and consumers of the new media.

Wan Ju Kang Senior Staff Reporter Archives  
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