How Conservatives Came to Favor the Fairness Doctrine & Net Neutrality

by on June 19, 2019 · 0 comments

I have been covering telecom and Internet policy for almost 30 years now. During much of that time – which included a nine year stint at the Heritage Foundation — I have interacted with conservatives on various policy issues and often worked very closely with them to advance certain reforms.

If I divided my time in Tech Policy Land into two big chunks of time, I’d say the biggest tech-related policy issue for conservatives during the first 15 years I was in the business (roughly 1990 – 2005) was preventing the resurrection of the so-called Fairness Doctrine. And the biggest issue during the second 15-year period (roughly 2005 – present) was stopping the imposition of “Net neutrality” mandates on the Internet. In both cases, conservatives vociferously blasted the notion that unelected government bureaucrats should sit in judgment of what constituted “fairness” in media or “neutrality” online.

Many conservatives are suddenly changing their tune, however. President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, have been increasingly critical of both traditional media and new tech companies in various public statements and suggested an openness to increased regulation. The President has gone after old and new media outlets alike, while Sen. Cruz (along with others like Sen. Lindsay Graham) has suggested during congressional hearings that increased oversight of social media platforms is needed, including potential antitrust action.

Meanwhile, during his short time in office, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has become one of the most vocal Internet critics on the Right. In a shockingly-worded USA Today editorial in late May, Hawley said, “social media wastes our time and resources” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” He even referred to these sites as “parasites” and blamed them for a long list of social problems, leading him to suggest that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared” along with various other sites and services.

Hawley’s moral panic over social media has now bubbled over into a regulatory crusade that would unleash federal bureaucrats on the Internet in an attempt to dictate “fair” speech on the Internet. He has introduced an astonishing piece of legislation aimed at undoing the liability protections that Internet providers rely upon to provide open platforms for speech and commerce. If Hawley’s absurdly misnamed new “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” is implemented, it would essentially combine the core elements of the Fairness Doctrine and Net Neutrality to create a massive new regulatory regime for the Internet.

The bill would gut the immunities Internet companies enjoy under 47 USC 230 (“Section 230”) of the Communications Decency Act. Eric Goldman of the Santa Clara University School of Law has described Section 230 as the “best Internet law” and “a big part of the reason why the Internet has been such a massive success.” Indeed, as I pointed out in a Forbes column on the occasion of its 15th anniversary, Section 230 is “the foundation of our Internet freedoms” because it gives online intermediaries generous leeway to determine what content and commerce travels over their systems without the fear that they will be overwhelmed by lawsuits if other parties object to some of that content.

The Hawley bill would overturn this important legal framework for Internet freedom and instead replace it with a new “permissioned” approach. In true “Mother-May-I” style, Internet companies would need to apply for an “immunity certification” from the FTC, which would undertake investigations to determine if the petitioning platform satisfied a “requirement of politically unbiased content moderation.”

The vague language of the measure is an open invitation to massive political abuse. The entirety of the bill hinges upon the ability of Federal Trade Commission officials to define and enforce “political neutrality” online. Let’s consider what this will mean in practice.

Under the bill, the FTC must evaluate whether platforms have engaged in “politically biased moderation,” which is defined as moderation practices that are supposedly, “designed to negatively affect” or “disproportionately restricts or promote access to … a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” As Blake Reid of the University of Colorado Law School rightly asks, “How, exactly, is the FTC supposed to figure out what the baseline is for ‘disproportionately restricting or promoting’? How much access or availability to information about political parties, candidates, or viewpoints is enough, or not enough, or too much?”

There is no Goldilocks formula for getting things just right when it comes to content moderation. It’s a trial-and-error process that is nightmarishly difficult because of the endless eye-of-the-beholder problems associated with constructing acceptable use policies for large speech platforms. We struggled with the same issues in the broadcast and cable era, but they have been magnified a million-fold in the era of the global Internet with the endless tsunami of new content that hits our screens and devices every day. “Do we want less moderation?” asks Sec, 230 guru Jeff Kosseff. “I think we need to look at that question hard.  Because we’re seeing two competing criticisms of Section 230,” he notes. “Some argue that there is too much moderation, others argue that there is not enough.”

The Hawley bill seems to imagine that a handful of FTC officials will magically be able to strike the right balance through regulatory investigations. That’s a pipe dream, of course, but let’s imagine for a moment that regulators could somehow sort through all the content on message boards, tweets, video clips, live streams, gaming sites, and whatever else, and then somehow figure out what constituted a violation of “political neutrality” in any given context. That would actually be a horrible result because let’s be perfectly clear about what that would really be: It would be a censorship board. By empowering unelected bureaucrats to make decisions about what constitutes “neutral” or “fair” speech, the Hawley measure would, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason summarizes, “put Washington in charge of Internet speech.” Or, as Sen. Ron Wyden argues more bluntly, the bill “will turn the federal government into Speech Police.” “Perhaps a more accurate title for this bill would be ‘Creating Internet Censorship Act,'” Eric Goldman is forced to conclude.

The measure is creating other strange bedfellows. You won’t see Berin Szoka of TechFreedom and Harold Feld of Public Knowledge ever agreeing on much, but they both quickly and correctly labelled Hawley’s bill a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.” That is quite right, and much like the old Fairness Doctrine, Hawley’s new Internet speech control regime would be open to endless political shenanigans as parties, policymakers, companies, and the various complainants line up to have their various political beefs heard and acted upon. “That’s the kind of thing Republicans said was unconstitutional (and subject to FCC agency capture and political manipulation) for decades,” says Daphne Keller of the Stanford Center for Internet & Society. Moreover, during the Net Neutrality holy wars, GOP conservatives endlessly blasted the notion that bureaucrats should be determining what constitute “neutrality” online because it, too, would result in abuses of the regulatory process. Yet, Sen. Hawley’s bill would now mandate that exact same thing.

What is even worse is that, as law professor Josh Blackman observes, “the bill also makes it exceedingly difficult to obtain a certification” because applicants need a supermajority of 4 of the 5 FTC Commissioners. This is public choice fiasco waiting to happen. Anyone who has studied the long, sordid history of broadcast radio and television licensing understands the danger associated with politicizing certification processes. The lawyers and lobbyists in the DC “swamp” will benefit from all the petitioning and paperwork, but it is not clear how creating a regulatory certification regime for Internet speech really benefits the general public (or even conservatives, for that matter).

Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright identifies another obvious problem with the Hawley Bill: it “offers the choice of death by bureaucratic board or the plaintiffs’ bar.” That’s because by weakening Sec. 230’s protections, Hawley’s bill could open the floodgates to waves of frivolous legal claims in the courts if companies can’t get (or lose) certification. The irony of that result, of course, is that this bill could become a massive gift to the tort bar that Republicans love to hate!

Of course, if the law ever gets to court, it might be ruled unconstitutional. “The terms ‘politically biased’ and ‘moderation’ would have vagueness and overbreadth problems, as they can chill protected speech,” Josh Blackman argues. So it could, perhaps, be thrown out like earlier online censorship efforts. But a lot of harm could be done—both to online speech and competition—in the years leading up to a final determination about the law’s constitutionality by higher courts.

What is most outrageous about all this is that the core rationale behind Hawley’s effort—the idea that conservatives are somehow uniquely disadvantaged by large social media platforms—is utterly preposterous. In May, the Trump Administration launched a “tech bias” portal which “asked Americans to share their stories of suspected political bias.” The portal is already closed and it is unclear what, if anything, will come out of this effort. But this move and Hawley’s proposal point to the broader trend of conservatives getting more comfortable asking Big Government to redress imaginary grievances about supposed “bias” or “exclusion.”

In reality, today’s social media tools and platforms have been the greatest thing that ever happened to conservatives. Mr. Trump owes his presidency to his unparalleled ability to directly reach his audience through Twitter and other platforms. As recently as June 12, President Trump tweeted, “The Fake News has never been more dishonest than it is today. Thank goodness we can fight back on Social Media.” Well, there you have it!

Beyond the President, one need only peruse any social media site for a few minutes to find an endless stream of conservative perspectives on display. This isn’t exclusion; it’s amplification on steroids. Conservatives have more soapboxes to stand on and preach than ever before in the history of this nation.

Finally, if they were true to their philosophical priors, then conservatives also would not be insisting that they have any sort of “right” to be on any platform. These are private platforms, after all, and it is outrageous to suggest that conservatives (or any other person or group) are entitled to have a spot on any other them.

Some conservatives are fond of ridiculing liberals for being “snowflakes” when it comes to other free speech matters, such as free speech on college campuses. Many times they are right. But one has to ask who the real snowflakes are when conservative lawmakers are calling on regulatory bureaucracies to reorder speech on private platform based on the mythical fear of not getting “fair” treatment. One also cannot help but wonder if those conservatives have thought through how this new Internet regulatory regime will play out once a more liberal administration takes back the reins of power. Conservatives will only have themselves to blame when the Speech Police come for them.


Addendum: Several folks have pointed out another irony associated with Hawley’s bill is that it would greatly expand the powers of the administrative state, which conservatives already (correctly) feel has too much broad, unaccountable power. I should have said more on that point, but here’s a nice comment from David French of National Review, which alludes to that problem and then ties it back to my closing argument above: i.e., that this proposal will come back to haunt conservatives in the long-run:

when coercion locks in — especially when that coercion is tied to constitutionally suspect broad and vague policies that delegate immense powers to the federal government — conservatives should sound the alarm. One of the best ways to evaluate the merits of legislation is to ask yourself whether the bill would still seem wise if the power you give the government were to end up in the hands of your political opponents. Is Hawley striking a blow for freedom if he ends up handing oversight of Facebook’s political content to Bernie Sanders? I think not.


Additional thoughts on the Hawley bill:

Josh Wright

Daphne Keller

Blake Reid


Josh Blackman

Sen. Ron Wyden

Jeff Kosseff

Eric Goldman



Internet Association

David French at National Review

John Samples

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