Invisible Internet regulation: The obscure, legalistic, and alarming ways the government shapes the future of technology.

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Feb. 1 2011 10:23 AM

The Myth of Government Neutrality

The subtle, obscure, and legalistic ways the government regulates the Internet.

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This article arises from  Future Tensea collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on whether governments can keep pace will scientific advances will be held at Google D.C.'s headquarters on Feb. 3-4 . (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF Web site.)

Click to launch a slideshow on the myth of government neutrality.

Most discussions of "government and the Internet" focus on content regulation: Should there be a law against cyberbullying? Sanctions against companies who help Wikileaks? What about Egypt shutting down the Internet? These days, such questions are raised in the United States only by extreme behavior,the electronic equivalents of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. For the most part, there is broad political, legal, and social consensus that government shouldn't fiddle with how information flows in a free society.

But the ideal of neutral government is a mirage. Government has always played a significant role in how we communicate. This happens through economic regulation—communications law, antitrust enforcement, intellectual property, and even public education and the postal service.

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These dry and purportedly content-neutral topics have (and will continue to have) a big impact on communications and media—and through them, on foundational aspects of our society. Let's consider some examples.

Bruce Gottlieb is a former Slate staff writer and chief counsel at the Federal Communications Commission; he is currently general counsel at the Atlantic Media Company.

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