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Will the government's inevitable regulation reflect the Net's historic egalitarian, democratic, all-welcoming view of information?
"It was not at all clear how, or even if, corporations could own or manage [it]. It seemed that [this medium] might be the truly democratic, decentralized communication technology people had yearned for, a device each individual would control and use whenever he or she wanted, without tolls" . A quote from a recent article describing the Internet? Not exactly. Historian Susan Douglas was writing in 1987 about the radio in 1899, about a century before similar enthusiasm broke out over another new communication medium, the Internet. Here, in order to compare the radio's and the Internet's popular development, I show how various regulatory mechanisms develop during the growth and deployment of any large-scale communication medium.
ALTHOUGH THE RADIO AND THE INTERNET DIFFER in many respects, they share important similarities. The technical aspects of radio use depend on the limited resources of the ether, while there are no such natural limits to transmitting data over the Internet. Regarding their uses, the radio today is mainly a broadcast medium, whereas the Internet encompasses the functions of all existing media. Despite these and other differences, the origins and early evolution of these two media are similar in many ways. Most important is that much like the Internet, the radio in its earliest years was also a one-to-one communication medium and only later became primarily a broadcast medium.
The broad diffusion of a communication medium eventually prompts both the public and private sectors to establish regulating mechanisms. This can happen through self-censorship on the part of the industry and through government regulation. The recent emergence of the Internet as a mass communication system has begun to raise questions about such regulation, along with others concerning personal privacy, national security, children's use of technology, advertising, information reliability, and monopolistic control.
All of these issues had to be addressed at the beginning of the 20th century, in relation to the dissemination of wireless communication, namely the radio. A historical look at government intervention, the actions of the business sector, and the role of users lends itself to a clearer understanding of the processes involved in shaping the media landscape. Moreover, it shows how media tend toward regulation with respect to use authorization and the dissemination of content and other information.
An Alternative to the Telephone
A hundred years ago, the radio was viewed by the public as the wireless alternative to the Bell telephone. Although public opinion and the popular press quickly embraced wireless, certain of its technical details remained obscure to the general public. The so-called ether--an intangible, invisible and universal entity--seemed to belong to all people everywhere, and it was difficult to grasp at first how it could be partitioned, owned, regulated, controlled, or monopolized . Soon, many middle-class boys and young men started using it for their personal amusement. Then, after several historic events, including the Titanic disaster in 1912 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the medium suddenly lost its innocence and charm for the public, as well as for the government and private industry.
The U.S. government, along with other governments around the world, stepped in to regulate the use of the radio, and amateur use was curtailed in the U.S. Eventually, the medium was institutionalized; few opportunities were left for individual transmitters. By the early teens, because the press consciously cut back on the idea of popularizing the medium, the gradual centralization of control of the technology and the transfer of user rights to corporate entities did not generate public outcry. But not all amateurs gave up on their own personal use, and soon, small broadcasting stations began to mushroom across the U.S. Corporations soon leveraged the new opportunity, adapting this new use of radio for their own profit-making goals. By the 1920s, as the radio's major function--personal wireless one-to-one communication--switched …