The Right to Access to Means of Mass Communication

Image credit OECD

If you’re reading this, you probably take for granted that you can hop onto the Internet at any place you can get a Wi-Fi connection so you can check your email and catch up with all your Facebook friends. It’s a poor day when you don’t watch at least one funny animal video on Youtube, and of course you chat with your BFF who lives two states away on Skype anytime you can both get a free hour in your busy lives.

But imagine if you couldn’t do any of these things because your national government has figured out that the Internet is a useful tool that rebels can use to communicate. Iran has actually severed the trunk cables going into its country that serve as the Internet’s backbones. So much for what Robert Zubrin’s proposed Martian Constitution calls “The right to access to means of mass communication.” Not only does every petty dictator on Earth dislike the fact that access to the World Wide Web means access to new ideas, but they also want to shut down ways for rebel cells to communicate. So if they aren’t knocking out access to the Internet by physically taking sheers to the cables, they’re blocking websites that are widely popular in the Western world. As we are seeing in Syria, the rebels are not always the good guys — a case in which a good cause gets hijacked by bad people — but it’s really not that easy to create a new social network if you lose access to Facebook and Twitter.

Some of the younger folks probably wonder what in the world we did before the Internet. Well, news still had ways of spreading. We had “snail mail,” town criers whose job was to shout the news to anyone who was interested (this was, of course, before we started tuning in to the 6-o’clock news), and eventually everybody had a telephone, radio and television. I actually remember from the time I worked in one of Sprint’s call centers that there was one state that constitutionally guaranteed phone service. I think it was Tennessee, but don’t take my word for it. This is a way to stay connected in a world in which everybody can just go their own separate ways.

Next time you get another “buy one, get one free” offer in your in your inbox, that’s businesses taking advantage of mass communication for their marketing. Those guys behind the “Nigerian lottery” scam do the same thing. These are some of the most annoying aspects of mass communication, but if you just delete them without opening them, no harm done. Do these guys deserve access to mass communication? It’d be easy to ban some of the more annoying TV commercials, but where does it stop? There’s no law against marketers wasting their money though one might wish that they would come up with a demographic for wannabe Martians and quit wasting dollars advertising Cover Girl products to me. (Are you listening, Youtube?) That’s the annoying side of mass communication but not entirely worth giving it up for.

The bigger irritants are the governments that completely control mass communications. You know the ones. The Soviet Union used to either own all the newspapers and TV stations or control them in other ways. China has ways to punish reporters and bloggers that post things that oppose the official stance on issues. That sort of situation defeats the purpose of having mass communications in the first place. It’s not very conducive for encouraging healthy debate because it slows down the spread of new ideas. Even if you’re an American who complains about news services being skewed towards particular agendas, at least you can choose whether you want to watch CNN or FOX or leave the TV off altogether and start your own blog. If you lived in China, you wouldn’t even have CNN and FOX as options and you might end up in a prison in which the guards find novel ways to abuse prisoners if you run a blog that the government finds offensive.

There are ways to play around with data even if you don’t censor certain websites or content. Net neutrality is such a hot issue in America because it’s possible to throttle certain types of data. The Internet can, for instance, tell the difference between a packet of streaming video and a piece of a Word document. It’s possible to give priority to the streaming video over the Word document and even block those data packets based on where it’s coming from or where it’s going. When you hit the “send” button, it will happen pretty quickly unless your ISP is fooling around with your connection or you just don’t have great service to begin with. The main fear is that, in the absence of net neutrality, ISPs will be able to turn the Internet into a subscription service similar to the way satellite TV is now. That’s bad news for college students who do a lot of their research for a paper online and it’s bad news for small bloggers like me who have a tough enough time competing with Yahoo News and the FOX website as it is. Freedom of the press won’t mean much if nobody sees what I publish because “The right to access to means of mass communication” got sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar

What will “The right to access to means of mass communication” mean on Mars? Well, in this case, the laws of physics will limit our access to any Earth-based websites. If we want to email each other, we’ll probably be relying on Microsoft Outlook or something similar and a mail server. The real-time nature of Facebook, Twitter and Skype will probably make them useless for anything other than sending messages to friends and family on Earth. A central server will probably update a cache of frequently visited websites on a regular basis. In time, we’ll probably have our own version of the World Wide Web and everything that goes with it, and hopefully anybody who sabotages it by severing the trunks will face harsh penalties regardless of who they are.

More About Net Neutrality & What It Means For You