Celebrating 20 Years of Internet Free Speech & Free Exchange

by on June 22, 2017 · 0 comments

[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago.

First, on June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Reno v. ACLU, which struck down the Communications Decency Act’s provisions seeking to regulate online content under the old broadcast media standard. The Court concluded that there was “no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium” and rejected the congressional effort to pigeonhole this exciting new medium into the archaic censorship regimes of the past.

The Reno decision was tremendously important in protecting online speakers from the chilling effect of government “indecency” regulations. The decision also set a strong legal precedent and was cited in countless subsequent decisions involving not only online speech, but also efforts to regulate video game content.

Second, in July 1997, the Clinton Administration released The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, a document that outlined the US government’s new policy approach toward the Internet and the emerging digital economy. The Framework was a bold vision statement that endorsed comprehensive online freedom of exchange, saying that “the private sector should lead [and] the Internet should develop as a market driven arena not a regulated industry.” The Administration rejected a restrictive regulatory regime for commercial activities and instead recommended reliance on civil society, contractual negotiations, voluntary agreements, and industry self-regulation.

To “avoid undue restrictions on electronic commerce,” the vision statement recommended that “parties should be able to enter into legitimate agreements to buy and sell products and services across the Internet with minimal government involvement or intervention.” But, “[w]here governmental involvement is needed, its aim should be to support and enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent and simple legal environment for commerce.”

Taken together, the Reno decision and the Clinton Administration’s Framework acted as a Magna Carta moment for the Internet and digital technologies. It signaled that “permissionless innovation” would become America’s governance stance toward online speech and commerce.

As I defined it in a book on the subject, permissionless innovation, “refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if any develop, can be addressed later.” The primary advantage of permissionless innovation as a governance disposition is that it sends a clear green light to citizens telling them they are at liberty to pursue their own interests and passions, free from the suffocating grip of prior restraints on free speech and free exchange.

But the Reno decision and the Clinton Administration’s Framework are not the only critical policy decisions that helped enshrine permissionless innovation as the lodestar of online policy in the US. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton Administration made the decision to allow open commercialization of the Internet, which was previously just the domain of government agencies and university researchers. Even more crucially, when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, lawmakers made it clear that traditional analog-era communications and media regulatory regimes would generally not be applied to the Internet.

The Telecom Act also included an obscure provision known as “Section 230,” which immunized online intermediaries from onerous liability for the content and communications that traveled over their networks. Section 230 was hugely important in that it let online speech and commerce flourish without the constant threat of frivolous lawsuits looming overhead. Internet scholar David Post has argued that “it is impossible to imagine what the Internet ecosystem would look like today without [Section 230]. Virtually every successful online venture that emerged after 1996 — including all the usual suspects, viz. Google, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, Craigslist, YouTube, Instagram, eBay, Amazon — relies in large part (or entirely) on content provided by their users, who number in the hundreds of millions, or billions,” he notes. It is unlikely that the vibrant marketplace of online speech and commerce we enjoy today could have existed without the protections afforded by Section 230.

Finally, in 1998, another important legislative development occurred when Congress passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which blocked all levels of government in the US from imposing discriminatory taxes on the Internet. That made it clear that the Net would not be milked as a “cash cow” the way previous communications systems had been.

So, let’s recap how policymakers generally got policy right for the Internet in the mid-1990s by enshrining permissionless innovation as the law of the land:

  • The Executive Branch set the tone for online freedom by fully privatizing the underlying network and then establishing a governance vision based upon minimal government interference with online speech and exchange.
  • The Legislative Branch generally endorsed the Clinton Administration’s vision for the Internet and digital technologies by ensuring that new policies would not be based upon the failed regulatory and tax policies of the past.
  • The Judicial Branch upheld the centrality of the First Amendment in the Information Age and made it clear that this new medium for speech would be granted the strongest protection against government encroachments on freedom of speech and expression.

The combined effect of these wise, bipartisan policy decisions was that the Net and digital tech were “born free” instead of being born into regulatory captivity. We continue to enjoy the fruits of these freedoms today as citizens here in the US and across the world take advantage of the unprecedented ability to connect and communicate to pursue their passions and interests as they see fit.

There’s still more work to be done, however. Online platforms and digital technologies continue to come under attack from regulatory activists both here and abroad. Many governments continue to push back against these online speech and commercial freedoms, meaning we’ll need to redouble our efforts to highlight and defend the benefits of preserving these important victories.

Finally, as the underlying drivers of the Digital Revolution continue to spread into other segments of the economy, these freedoms will come into conflict with older top-down regulatory regimes for automobiles, aviation, medical technology, finance, and much more. This will create an epic conflict of governance visions between the Internet’s permissionless innovation model versus the precautionary, command-and-control regulatory regimes of the industrial age. We already see tension at work in policy deliberations over the Internet of Things, “big data,” driverless cars, commercial drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality, the sharing economy, and others.

If policymakers hope to preserve and extend the benefits of the hard-fought victories of the Internet’s past twenty years, they will need to restate and reinvigorate their commitment to permissionless innovation to help spur the next great technological revolutions in these and other fields.

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