This week's Supreme Court hearing of the Communications Decency Act has been portrayed as the beginning of the end of the debate over free speech on the Net. In fact, it is the end of the beginning.
As they have done many times before, proponents of the CDA argued before the Supreme Court yesterday that the Internet is a mass medium that should be regulated. Opponents repeated their counterpoint that viewers use the Net differently--requesting information rather than passively receiving it--with technology that is nothing like TV.
But the commercialization of the Internet has created a demand to make computer hardware and software look and act more like television. So what happens to Internet regulation when this long-awaited "convergence" takes place? Will studios be allowed more freedom on the Net for the same content they broadcast on networks and cable?
"The more [the Net] starts to look like TV or cable, the easier it is going to be for courts to draw an analogy between them," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which supports free speech on the Internet. "You are going to find the more regulated media complaining about the regulating regime. They will say there is not a big difference between what is on the Net and what is sent over cable and the airwaves."
If the marriage of TV and Internet technologies is not quite complete, the courtship is in full bloom. And this convergence has already produced new ways of channeling information that present challenges to those who want to filter objectionable material away from children.
"Push" technology may do just that. This technology is named so because it can send material from the Internet, including real-time video, onto your computer screen--and not necessarily filter it first. If push technology becomes widely used, it could force the courts to readdress the issue of what is permissible online.
Beginning next Monday, for example, CNNfn plans to stream live video of two of its popular financial programs onto the Net only slightly after they air on TV, with simultaneous broadcasting due later this year. Fox News and MSNBC may not be far behind. And Excite announced this week that it will organize its search engine around "channels" to create a Web experience that mimics TV.
The technologies are also being used by more controversial media companies. Hustler magazine, for example, already provides a "program" called Passport to Pleasure, which promises users who download free software the option of living out erotic fantasies with "real live women."