Net Neutrality, Free Speech, and Tim Lee’s New Paper

by on November 20, 2008 · 48 comments

Tim Lee has been taking some heat here from Richard Bennett and Steve Schultze about various aspects of his new Net neutrality paper. I haven’t had much time this week to jump into these debates, but I did want to mention one important portion of Tim’s paper that is being overlooked. Specifically, I like the way Tim took head-on some of the silly free speech arguments being put forth as a rationale for net neutrality regulation. As Tim notes in the introduction of the paper:

Concerns that network owners will undermine free speech online are particularly misguided. Network owners have neither the technology nor the manpower to effectively filter online content based on the viewpoints being expressed, nor do profit-making businesses have any real incentive to do so. Should a network owner be foolish enough to attempt large-scale censorship of its customers, it would not only fail to suppress the disfavored speech, but the network would actually increase the visibility of the content as the effort at censorship attracted additional coverage of the material being censored.

I think that’s exactly right and, later in his paper (between pgs 22-3), Tim nicely elaborates about the “Herculean task” associated with any attempt by a broadband provider to “manipulate human communication.” Not only is it true, as Tim argues, that “no widescale manipulation would go unnoticed for very long,” but he is also correct in noting that the public and press backlash would be enormous.

Again, I agree wholeheartedly with all these sentiments, but I think Tim missed another important angle here when discussing the unfounded fears about corporate censorship and the misguided attempts to use free speech as a justification for imposing net neutrality regulations.

In his paper, Tim is essentially making an argument about the practicality of broadband providers acting as speech regulators — and he demolishes that assertion. But Tim fails to make an argument about the principle of the matter that is at stake here. Namely, some net neutrality supporters are attempting to convert the First Amendment into an affirmative grant of state power to regulate private entities, something it was clearly never intended to do.

Indeed, when Net neutrality supporters like the “Save the Internet Coalition” make statements like “Network neutrality is the Internet’s First Amendment,” I sometimes wonder if they are reading the same Constitution that I am. After all, the language of the First Amendment could not be more clear when it says, “Congress shall make no law…” It doesn’t contain any caveats or footnotes. And the First Amendment most certainly was not intended as a tool for government to control the editorial discretion of private individuals or institutions. It was about restricting the power of the government to curtail speech and expression.

Beginning in the 1960’s, however, a handful of liberal legal theories began concocting a new theory of the First Amendment that eventually came to be known as the “media access” school of thought. George Washington University law professor Jerome A. Barron’s 1967 Harvard Law Review article, “Access to the Press — a New First Amendment Right,” as well as the work of Yale University law professor Owen Fiss, gave rise to this new intellectual movement. Its goal, in essence, was to convert the First Amendment into a club to beat demands out of private media providers. Basically, these theorists wanted to expand “Fairness Doctrine”-like right-of-reply notions to newspapers, and simultaneously grant the government more leeway to use the First Amendment to alter media structures and outputs. As Fiss argued in a 1986 law review article, under the “media access” approach, a proper reading of the First Amendment requires “a change in our attitude about the state” such that we learn “to recognize the state not only as an enemy, but also as a friend of speech… [that should act] to enhance the quality of public debate.” (Iowa Law Review, Vol. 71, 1986, p. 1416).

Other left-leaning intellectuals and activists groups would come to integrate that logic into their work and public policy proposals. Now you know, for example, where the Media Access Project gets their name! But many other regulatory-minded groups — like Free Press,, New America Foundation, and others — trace much of their intellectual heritage back to Barron, Fiss, and the other media access theorists. [Read my lengthy debunking of media access theory here.]

Here we see how the seeds of misguided intellectual thinking sometimes spring into wild gardens in which the weeds slowly take over everything in sight. This twisted conception of the First Amendment is so thoroughly ingrained in leftist media policy thinking today that even an abundant medium like the Internet is not exempt from potential regulations based on it. And that’s how we get to the point we are at today in the net neutrality regulatory debate, with many policymakers and activists groups painting private broadband operators as the supposed real Big Brother problem that the First Amendment must address.

Consider, for example, the comments Sen. Hillary Clinton made in 2006 regarding why she supports net neutrality regulation: “Each day on the Internet views are discussed and debated in an open forum without fear of censorship or reprisal.” As I noted at the time, when I read her statement I practically fell off my chair. It’s not just that Sen. Clinton is asking us to believe in some asinine conspiracy theory about how broadband companies are supposedly out to censor our thoughts or engage in reprisals. (”Reprisals”? For what?) No, what really blew my mind here was the fact that Sen. Clinton had the chutzpah to declare that the private sector was somehow the real threat to online speech. After all, as I inventoried in that old essay, Sen. Clinton has led several notable efforts over the past decade to expand government regulation of television, video games, and even the Internet.

And yet she and many other Net neutrality advocates insist that it is the private sector, not the government, that is the real threat to our free speech rights. Again, Tim Lee is correct to point out in his paper that, practically speaking, these advocates of Net neutrality regulation have little to fear in this regard. It is almost impossible to believe that any Internet operator could limit speech or expression in the ways these regulatory advocates fear. Unlike the government, which possesses the coercive power to completely foreclose all speech under threat of fine or imprisonment, the private sector lacks the ability to use force to bottle up speech or speakers. And even if private operators tried it, there would be hell for them to pay with the press, industry watchdogs, and their even subscribers. More importantly, there’s just no good business angle to censorship; they make more money by delivering more bits, not fewer. Finally, any attempt by one actor to stifle something becomes a prime incentive for another to offer it.  So, Tim is right on all those grounds.

But the principle of the matter is important, and we can’t let regulatory advocates get away with their effort convert the First Amendment into something it isn’t. As Jonathan Emord, author of the brilliant Freedom, Technology and the First Amendment, argued back in 1991, “In short, the [media] access advocates have transformed the marketplace of ideas from a laissez-faire model to a state-control model.” The real danger of this twisted conception of the First Amendment, he noted, is that, “It fundamentally shifts the marketplace of ideas from its private, unregulated, and interactive context to one within the compass of state control, making the marketplace ultimately responsible to government for determinations as to the choice of content expressed.”

That philosophy and regulatory approach is completely at odds with a proper understanding of the First Amendment, and yet that is exactly what many Net neutrality regulatory advocates are asking us to accept today.  The state — not the private sector — remains the true threat to our liberties. And, most horrifyingly of all, empowering the state to use the First Amendment to regulate private actors will almost certainly backfire and result in more, not less, regulation of speech online.

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