Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Should journalists (and even bloggers) need licenses? It's not as easy to refute as we would like

Recently, there has been a lot of rhetoric from some politicians that we need to crack down on fake news in some formal way.
So one idea that naturally comes up would be the licensing of journalists. It looks like I covered this problem once in 2012 with regard to an issue in North Carolina.  Now the issue surfaces in Indiana (which doesn't want "me").  So here goes. 
It’s obvious that “freedom of the press” in the First Amendment would be jeopardized (and would mean that licensing could meet almost immediate court challenge). But one can imagine setting up a licensing agency that is somehow separated legally from partisan politics the way the Fed is, or the way the FBI is supposed to be.  But Donald Trump has shown so little regard for these separations that one would have little confidence that he (or other authoritarians) would respect the independence of such an agency. If Trump wanted to do this, he would be smarter to behave better with respect to the independence of his FBI, intelligence services (especially Monday in Helsinki) and financial markets.

In fact, licensing means different things according to context. Typically, an individual needs some sort of business license with the state (although for a proprietorship this is very minimal), and usually a sales tax certificate (which could get more complicated with interstate taxing as allowed by the Supreme Court). To mail a newsletter, apparently you have to prove to the USPS that at least 50% comes from paid subscribers (to avoid junk mail problems).
Broadcast television is heavily regulated (as I learned myself when I worked for NBC in the 1970s – no complaints, I’d do it again) Cable is much less regulated, as it morphs into Internet TV (and the network neutrality debate). But video channels like YouTube and Vimeo essentially are not (although there are issues like DMCA Safe Harbor, Section 230, and FOSTA). They are perceived as for amateurs, although major media companies create free content for them.

In some countries overseas, like Portugal, journalists really do need formal licenses. 

But then there is the obvious question as to whether independent individual blogging would then have to be licensed, if in fact it reported news at all or offered factual commentary (or maybe legal advice). The link here gives many examples where citizen journalism reported things (like pipeline demonstrations in the Dakotas) largely missed my newspapers and television stations.

One possibility is that, without net neutrality, telecoms could some day insist on some sort of certification license (for safety, SSL certificate, and supportability) before any domain is allowed to connect.

President Trump would seem to want this, based on his pre-election comments (like shutting down the Internet back in December 2015, and for his professed dislike of computers); but then he took to Twitter. and seems to hate the established corporate media, anything to the left of Fox.  But individual bloggers (like Milo) seem to be OK for him. 
This gets into nebulous issues I’ve covered before, such as whether speech pays its own way (similar to the newsletter issue above), has backup people, or whether the speaker has a good “social credit” reputation (as we look toward Beijing’s plans for “social credit scores” in 2020).  It also invokes the left wing idea that most individualized political speech exists only to bully the oppressed, and that everybody needs to belong to a tribe first.  Indeed, without the right to speak individually as we have now, people would be forced more into group activism to be heard at all, which is what a lot of people on the far Left want.

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