Friday, February 16, 2007

Whithering Federalism in the Stevens Internet Bill...

A debate has been going on for some time in the blogosphere over a bill introduced by Senator Ted Stevens - which includes the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, the Deleting Online Predators Act, and the Children's Listbroker Privacy Act - all of which are intended to protect children from internet predators and reduce child pornography online. Some are arguing that the bill amounts to censorship of legitimate informative websites, including Wikipedia and MySpace, while others counter that the language of the bill does not automatically censor such sites, but does leave it a possibility depending on the judgments of the Federal Trade Commission.

The Stevens bill appears to be the lynchpin of Internet policy debate for 2007. However, while all of this gets hammered out, both in the blogosphere and in Congress, what often gets overlooked are crucial notions of federalism.

The American federalist system is based on the idea that local and state governments claim sovereignty simultaneously with the national government. That's why governors are not mere subordinates of the President, and why the issue of states' rights is ever so prominent in American politics. The importance of local and state governments, and that they are at least somewhat independent of the national government, is a crucial check on the influence of Washington and crucial in decentralizing power.

The Stevens bill attempts to consolidate power over Internet policy in the hands of the national government in a far too drastic manner. Local school boards and public libraries which receive federal funding would no longer be able to make decisions over what types of websites should or should not be accessible. Even though the citizen parents of New York City might deem sites like Wikipedia perfectly alright (and perhaps even valuable) while parents in Mississippi might disagree and deem them worth banning in public places, the Stevens bill would take decision-making away from the local authorities and place it in the hands of Washington legislators and bureaucrats (in this case, the FTC).

Regardless of your position on the bill in terms of censorship and protecting children online, those interested in defending federalism and limiting Big Government ought to be able to unite on this point.


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