Government regulation of new technology is an old tale

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Government officials throughout history have reacted to each new technology — books, photographs, movies, radio, television and the Internet — with an urge to regulate, two leaders of the Freedom Forum said yesterday.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, and Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of technology and programs for the Freedom Forum, spoke to 21 journalists attending the Electronic Commerce Seminar sponsored by the National Press Foundation. The presentation on free-speech issues at the First Amendment Center was part of the three-day seminar held primarily at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

The discussion focused on a wide range of free-expression issues, including the history of the First Amendment, how government officials have regulated speech disseminated by new technology, the history of commercial speech and government proposals to restrict speech on the Internet.

Paulson related that the Founding Fathers learned from the mistakes of the Articles of Confederation and its weak central government and crafted a new Constitution marked by a balance between a strong federal government and the protection of individual rights.

“The First Amendment is not just another phrase, another document in American history; it is a binding contract with the American people,” he said. “It is the heart of what we are as a nation.”

Paulson detailed early examples of how government officials regulated technologies because they were afraid of certain speech. “Whoever's in charge when new technology is invented tries to control the new technology; it's happened throughout history,” he said.

He cited the example of Congress regulating the distribution of photographs in 1871 because pictures of naked women were sent to soldiers in the Civil War. “Government always tries to control new technology through regulation, and Americans find a way to use new technology for sex each and every time,” he said.

Powell told the participants that the urge to control speech over new channels of communication continued with the advent of radio, movies, television and now the Internet.

Government proposals to restrict content on the Internet “clearly are not going to go away,” he said.

“The central issue facing us is whether the Internet is going to have the kind of First Amendment protection that we associate with newspapers and magazines or whether it is going to have the kinds of content regulation which historically have been involved with radio and television,” Powell said.

So far the U.S. Supreme Court — with its June 1997 decision in Reno v. ACLU — and other courts have held that speech on the Internet is entitled to the same level of protection as speech in the print medium, Powell says. However, the battle is far from over, the speakers contend.

Paulson says regulation of online gambling will be a “hot issue” in the next few years. Government regulators also will focus on the “same old vices” of pornography, alcohol and drugs and “the new vice” known as junk e-mail, he says.