Pols’ secrets caught in the Web

Guest column

The Secretary of Defense’s answers to the Senate two weeks ago reminded me of music executives’ response to Napster in the mid-’90s — a sense of denial of the power of the Internet to put their jobs at risk.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged to Sen. Lindsay Graham that the world has yet to see the worst of the evidence, all the while complaining about “21st century inventions like digital cameras” that have altered his ability to keep secrets.

Rumsfeld’s notion that he can keep the video out of the public eye under the pretext that it is evidence in his criminal probe shows not only arrogance, but naivete.

Just as the top-secret Taguba report emerged on the Internet before any congressman (or even Rumsfeld himself) had it in his hands, it is obvious the Pentagon’s efforts to suppress the release of the pictures on “60 Minutes II” were a fool’s errand.

In an age before digital cameras, the print and negative could be destroyed by military intelligence and the whole case would have never come to light.

But as the founders of the Internet posited, “Information wants to be free.” The irony that many of them were working under contract to the Defense Advanced Research Project Authority (DARPA) in 1968 is probably lost on Secretary Rumsfeld.

Although the digital photos and video of the prison abuses may have been downloaded to military intelligence computers, it’s obvious that the shooters kept a perfect digital copy for their own private amusement.

To Rush Limbaugh this seems perfectly normal, like a fraternity prank: “I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of a need to blow some steam off?”

What Limbaugh and other Administration apologists fail to grasp is that the culture of secrecy that is at the core of Bush-Cheney strategic policy is basically at war with the democratizing open standard of the Internet.

As we have witnessed media consolidation in recent years, there has been a tendency of the Five Families (Disney, Fox, Viacom, General Electric and Time Warner) to avoid broadcasting anything that might irritate an Administration that holds the key to their continued expansion. Disney’s reported decision not to distribute Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” is just the latest example of this trend.

At the same time this march of Big Media conformity is taking place, an alternative Blogosphere on the Internet is creating a different narrative of truth that is exposing the administration’s secrecy to the light of day.

However, we should not be too confident of the power of the Internet to bring horror out of the shadows. In an age of broadband where seven corporate giants like Time Warner already control over 90% of high-speed access to the home, the FCC has already accomplished Big Media’s desire to make the open Internet into a “Walled Garden..

Quietly, the FCC recently reclassified broadband as an “Information Service” as opposed to a “Communication Service.” The distinction is not just semantic, for a “Communication Service” carries with it the notion of “common carrier,” meaning the service provider has no right to block a user’s access to any given Web site.

Under the Bush FCC, broadband providers have the legal right to block your access to any site for any reason. Without a public demand to roll back that regulation, the power of the Internet to preserve an open democracy will be severely limited.

Producer Jonathan Taplin is the founder of video on demand company Intertainer and a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

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