Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Public Input in Media Regulation

While reading the Siochru and Girard chapter on media regulation I became interested in the different ways in which various governments allow public input into media regulations. This mainly applied to the societal regulations in terms of the public sphere and prohibitive content. I was impressed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's extensive use of public input on regulations. There are public hearings, notices for public submissions, regional consultations, round-table discussions and apparently even more. Of course we don't know how much the CRTTC actually uses the suggestions and opinions expressed by the public, but I've never heard of the FCC in the US so actively pursuing public opinion on media regulation. Typically it seems that the only input the FCC gets from the public is when they see something they don't like and complain about it (Janet Jackson at the Superbowl anyone?). However, in my mind at least the FCC is somewhat separated from the government and therefore hopefully able to take a middle-ground position between the government and the public.
Then of course there are other extremes of countries which have no independent regulating organizations and all of these decisions are controlled by the state. Siochru and Girard did mention in societal briefly discuss regions where communication that is believed to "subvert" the state or "offends state symbols" can be prosecuted (11). While not explained or mentioned, the recent election crisis in Iran comes to mind, with the harsh government crackdown on any media coverage (or communication) that criticized the state. Much of the justification for the crackdown was that outsiders were trying to subvert the government and needed to be censored.
(However, a police state like Iran likely is not the only place such censorship could occur. While in the United States we do have protection for freedom of the press, it is unlikely the government would allow a company or organization to air material that explicitly subverts the state, for example a call to violence against the federal government.)
With these two ends of the spectrum, I began to wonder, what roles should the public play in creating societal media regulations? In Canada there is extensive public involvement, in the USA moderate involvement, and in Iran none. While I do admire the Canadian system, it seems unfeasible in many areas. I'm not sure how well the public hearings, regional meetings, and round-tables would go in the US, especially after seeing what happened at the health care town hall debates of the summer. So what then? Is our system of making our objections to content we find offensive the best way for us to continue or will the those with more extreme views (usually the most vocal) be the only ones heard because they yell the loudest?
To be fair, I think that so far the FCC has done a good job of regulating content, by prohibiting things that are generally offensive to American society (nudity, some profanity) but protecting free speech by allowing others that push boundaries, but don't technically cross that line (shows like Family Guy and South Park for instance). My fear is that in the future certain groups will push for labeling more and more content as offensive and therefore slowly curtail the rights of free speech.
Assuming for the sake of argument that this is a valid fear how should more moderate groups and individuals counter this? Should we write to the FCC and tell them we think they're doing a good job or wait until other groups push for those stricter regulations and then express our own discontent? Is it a constant dialogue between the public and regulating agencies or a matter to be addressed only when we have something to object to? How do we make sure our voices are heard in content regulation so that the views of the general public are not overshadowed by louder more extreme groups? Is that even possible?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not even sure that it's the 'louder, more extreme' groups that one should be worried about, but instead the corporations that are successfully lobbying congress and the FCC to limit the free speech rights of users of their technology. (SEE Apple's rules about what software can and can't be uploaded to the iphone, Comcast's service blocking, etc., and big media's attempts to leverage the current debate over net neutrality in their favor by sprinkling big donations and lobbyists over congress just like the health insurance companies have.

    This is interesting to me because I think it stems from a larger problem we have here in the U.S. of conferring private businesses and corporations with the same rights of 'political donations as free speech' as that of an individual, which when you think about it, is kind of ridiculous.

    For more on this, (warning! shameless plugs!) check out Larry Lessig's change-congress.org and freepress.net/savetheinternet.com