WASHINGTON – Rummaging through the innards of our house, my daughter, Molly, recently found what seemed to her something not just old, but archeological: A 1923 Underwood typewriter. In that machine, there’s a story of evolution and a power grab by big government.
A manual typewriter was standard gear for newsrooms and offices over a period ending in the mid-1970s. My Underwood, I think, came from a closet at the Buffalo Courier-Express bureau after it closed.
Reporters wouldn’t carry one around. It weighed 35 pounds. Later came ponderous miracles like the IBM Selectric typewriter. On the road, we had to find a Western Union operator to hand our copy to. Or bang out our stories on a perforated tape device called Telex, which was the size of a motorcycle.
There were more communications wonders in the 1970s. The lightweight Olivetti portable, and a Xerox device that sounded like a washing machine that could ship a whole page of copy in five minutes, if it didn’t jam.
With the rosy-fingered dawn of the digital era, traveling reporters were equipped with the Tandy 100, which had 36,000 bytes of RAM. We could transmit our prose home from a telephone booth using a balky pair of acoustical couplers, if the phones were dry.
All this ingenuity, starting with Johannes Gutenberg’s innovation of movable type, was suddenly wiped away 19 years ago with the development of the Internet.
Until last Thursday, there was something that the mechanical period of communications, dating from Gutenberg’s invention in 1439, and the digital/Internet era had in common, at least in Western culture. And that was freedom.
But the Federal Communications Commission, at the urging of President Obama, by a party-line Democratic 3-2 vote proposed to lay the heavy hand of our federal government on the Internet.
The government and the communications industry’s lobbyists have given the move an odd name. They call it “Net Neutrality.” The FCC’s ruling, carried out in secrecy and confusion, is anything but neutral.
Until now, the Internet has been a model of liberty. First, it doesn’t cost us, the consumers, anything. Nobody controls it, with the exception of a private agency that assigns Web titles. It is a miracle of voluntary cooperation among Western nations, private companies and interested agencies.
Almost every literate person over age 10 uses it. Now tell me somebody, anybody, who has a complaint about the Internet who believes the government can fix it. It flourished without bureaucrats.
The Democrats, including probable presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the mainstream media lined up like bowling pins to support the FCC majority. Writing from an FCC press release, they styled the vote as a way to keep big service providers from charging extra for faster service. These greedy efforts can be resolved in the marketplace.
But the FCC order also makes the Internet in the United States a government-controlled utility like the power and gas company. With the latent power to tax and control content.
Fortunately, the FCC order will wind up in court for a long time. It will continue to be a gravy train for lobbyists. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler knows this. He was a lobbyist for the grocery, cable and wireless industries. According to the blog Maplight, big players like Verizon, AT&T and Netflix have spent more than $400 million since 2008 trying to tune the contents of this 340-page ruling.
Wheeler refused to appear before Congress before the vote.
While members of Congress are grumbling, there is little in it for incumbents not to like. It speeds the flow of campaign gifts from these special interests.