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P2P paranoia leads Disney into the culture warriors' den


Last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an odd logo peered out from the maze of exhibitor booths—that of the Walt Disney Company.

Disney's holding a booth at CPAC was puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, it was to my knowledge the only corporate booth in the exhibitor hall. Second, Disney has a long and bloody history with conservative activists. Family values groups have criticized and launched boycotts of the Mouse for, among other things, hiring gay men and women to work at its theme parks, extending benefits to the spouses of gay employees, and even for allowing homosexuals into its parks at all, particularly as part of coordinated gay pride celebrations. Disney has also come under fire for some of the entertainment programming put out by its various subsidiaries, including the ABC Network and Miramax.

As it turns out, Disney was invited by Grover Norquist, the noted alliance-builder and influential strategist among grassroots conservatives. Norquist says he invited Disney because he saw the potential for a partnership between the entertainment giant and culture warriors.

The gist of that partnership? Stamping out peer-to-peer technology.

Many conservatives apparently don't like peer-to-peer because it facilitates the distribution of pornography. Disney doesn't like that it facilitates the distribution of copyrighted content. So they've allied.

It's a devil's bargain for both parties, and reveals a willingness on the part of each to forsake principles of free expression and limited government when those interfere with the desire to see the state protect more valued interests: Conservatives are betraying an allegiance to free markets, technology and innovation. Disney is lining up with avowed censors.

The Disney display table was neatly stacked with handouts, talking points, and position papers. It's tough to discern which was odder, an Ed Meese op-ed celebrating the "cultural value" and "awesome" economic potential of an entertainment conglomerate responsible for Captain Ron, The Pope Must Die, and two different movies called Bad Company, or the fact that an entertainment giant like Disney was distributing op-eds written by Ed Meese.

On the conservative side, the hypocrisy isn't quite as galling. You could make a good case (or a bad one) that peer-to-peer's infringement on intellectual property is just as hostile to free markets as cracking down on the technology might be. About a dozen movement leaders and politicians vowed to keep the federal government's hands off the Internet throughout the conference. (It's largely conservative politicians who have led the moratorium on an Internet sales tax.) And battling pornography has always been a high priority for culture warriors. Happily, Disney's presence at the conference didn't put a damper on the animus conservatives feel for Hollywood, and expressions contempt for the entertainment industry still abounded.

But from Disney's side, the alliance defies explanation. Why would an entertainment titan cast its lot with sworn enemies of free expression?

Last December, we learned that 99.9 percent of indecency complaints to the FCC in 2003 and 2004 came from a single source, Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council. Bozell's been particularly critical of Disney's ABC, decrying the popular Desperate Housewives, and last year scolding the network for broadcasting "an avalanche of filth." On the very weekend of CPAC, two of Bozell's groups and several other culturally conservative groups took out full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Post urging the Justice Department to make the prosecution of obscenity a federal crime-fighting priority.

Newly-confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez must have seen them. At a speech to the Hoover Institution earlier this month, Gonzalez listed the "aggressive prosecution" of obscenity among his top priorities. Gonzalez added that he had ordered DOJ lawyers to "carefully review federal laws to see how we might strengthen our hand in prosecuting obscenity." Appropriately enough, Gonzalez was introduced at the event by Ed Meese.

Make no mistake, the cultural right has made censorship of what it considers "indecency" a public policy priority. They're doing well, too. Congress is set to drastically increase fines on broadcast stations that violate decency standards. The bill overwhelmingly passed the house.

Both Stern and Opie and Anthony have bolted broadcast for satellite radio. Of course, Republicans would like to get their hands on those, too. Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Joe Barton, respectively chairmen the influential Senate and House commerce committees, have proposed extending the FCC's regulation of indecency to cable TV and satellite radio (both mediums offer parental control mechanisms to block out questionable content).

Amusingly, in announcing his plans at a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Sen. Stevens described his disgust at crude references made in the animated series Father of the Pride as motivation for his decision to expand indecency regulations to cable. But Father of the Pride was shown not cable or satellite but on NBC broadcast channel. That's no problem for Stevens (or for that matter Disney, which as of this writing does not own NBC).

Disney's horror of filesharing is apparently so overwhelming that the company's willing to saddle up with activists with little tolerance for free expression to snuff the technology out.

Politics, as they say, can make for strange bedfellows. But Mickey Mouse ought to be careful about whom he takes for a roll in the hay. In this case, there's a pretty good chance he's going to regret it in the morning.