they're coming for you

Wednesday, March 10, 2004, at 06:26AM

By Eric Richardson

In what was probably just a stroke of programming luck, Howard Stern's movie Private Parts was on Cinemax last night. I watched the last two-thirds or so of it and was struck by how topical it seemed. As you should know by now, Howard's in some hot water, as usual, but this time it looks like it could be the last straw. BuzzMachine (via has a good recap of the situation, and takes the controversy to its logical frightening extension:

But here's the doozie, folks: By a one-vote margin, the committee defeated an attempt to extend FCC censorship to cable and satellite.

Listen: The First Amendment should prohibit what the FCC already does to TV and radio but, of course, its regulation and censorship is kept in place by the flimsy tissue of the idea that these are the scarce "public airwaves." Well, cable and satellite are not public property; they are private property. If the government goes in to regulate and censor what happens there, then there is nothing stopping them from regulating and censoring books, music, concerts, comedy clubs... and the Internet.

The government's tried to censor the Internet in the past. They've had some wins (CIPA) and they've had some losses (CDA, others). Just last week the Supreme Court heard agruments on COPA, a 1998 act currently under injuction. Putting aside for a moment the fact that this is the Internet, a medium the government will never be able to control, this is scary stuff. This is an attempt by the FCC to hold onto their power in an environment that has worked around their limitations. The FCC has reign over broadcast, but broadcast is quickly becoming irrelevant. Wireless networks are spreading a regulation free cloud over larger and larger parts of our day to day lives.

My favorite radio station is KCRW. They've been in the news recently for their decision to fire Sandra Tsing Loh for profanity in a recorded broadcast (ummm... if you ran a radio station, wouldn't you have someone listen to pre-recorded segments before airing them?). I'm not going to get into here whether or not that was a justifiable move. But how long will it be before voices like KCRW realize that their radio license isn't that important? KCRW broadcasts three 24-hour Internet streams: simulcast, all music, and all news. They're popular enough online that they've taken to sponsoring concerts all the way across the country in New York City, solely on the strength of their online listening audience. How long before that audience is all that matters? How long before the FCC clamp-down gets so obnoxious that such a move is the only one that allows you to keep your principles?

It's going to get ugly, but it's going to get interesting.