First Amendment & Free Speech

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has kicked off a new project called “Digital Platforms and American Life,” which will bring together a variety of scholars to answer the question: How should policymakers think about the digital platforms that have become embedded in our social and civic life? The series, which is being edited by AEI Senior Fellow Adam J. White, highlights how the democratization of knowledge and influence in the Internet age comes with incredible opportunities but also immense challenges. The contributors to this series will approach these issues from various perspectives and also address different aspects of policy as it pertains to the future of technological governance.

It is my honor to have the lead paper in this new series. My 19-page essay is entitled, Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium, and it represents my effort to concisely tie together all my writing over the past 30 years on governance trends for the Internet and related technologies. The key takeaways from my essay are:

  • Traditional governance mechanisms are being strained by modern technological and political realities. Newer technologies, especially digital ones, are developing at an ever-faster rate and building on top of each other, blurring lines between sectors.
  • Congress has failed to keep up with the quickening pace of technological change. It also continues to delegate most of its constitutional authority to agencies to deal with most policy concerns. But agencies are overwhelmed too. This situation is unlikely to change, creating a governance gap.
  • Decentralized governance techniques are filling the gap. Soft law—informal, iterative, experimental, and collaborative solutions—represents the new normal for technological governance. This is particularly true for information sectors, including social media platforms, for which the First Amendment acts as a major constraint on formal regulation anyway.
  • No one-size-fits-all tool can address the many governance issues related to fast-paced science and technology developments; therefore, decentralized governance mechanisms may be better suited to address newer policy concerns.

My arguments will frustrate many people of varying political dispositions because I adopt a highly pragmatic approach to technological governance. Continue reading →

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran my short letter to the editor entitled, “We Can Protect Children and Keep the Internet Free.” My letter was a response to columnist Peggy Noonan’s April 9 oped, “Can Anyone Tame Big Tech?” in which she proposed banning everyone under 18 from all social-media sites. She specifically singled out TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram and argued “You’re not allowed to drink at 14 or drive at 12; you can’t vote at 15. Isn’t there a public interest here?”

I briefly explained why Noonan’s proposal is neither practical nor sensible, noting how it:

would turn every kid into an instant criminal for seeking access to information and culture on the dominant medium of their generation. I wonder how she would have felt about adults proposing to ban all kids from listening to TV or radio during her youth.

Let’s work to empower parents to help them guide their children’s digital experiences. Better online-safety and media-literacy efforts can prepare kids for a hyperconnected future. We can find workable solutions that wouldn’t usher in unprecedented government control of speech.

Let me elaborate just a bit because this was the focus of much of my writing a decade ago, including my book, Parental Controls & Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools & Methods, which spanned several editions. Online child safety is a matter I take seriously and the concerns that Noonan raised in her oped have been heard repeatedly since the earliest days of the Internet. Regulatory efforts were immediately tried. They focused on restricting underage access to objectionable online content (as well as video games), but were immediately challenged and struck down as unconstitutionally overbroad restrictions on free speech and a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading →

On December 13th, I will be participating in an Atlas Network panel on, “Big Tech, Free Speech, and Censorship: The Classical Liberal Approach.” In anticipation of that event, I have also just published a new op-ed for The Hill entitled, “Left and right take aim at Big Tech — and the First Amendment.” In this essay, I expand upon that op-ed and discuss the growing calls from both the Left and the Right for a variety of new content regulations. I then outline the classical liberal approach to concerns about free speech platforms more generally, which ultimately comes down to the proposition that innovation and competition are always superior to government regulation when it comes to content policy.

In the current debates, I am particularly concerned with calls by many conservatives for more comprehensive governmental controls on speech policies enforced by various private platforms, so I will zero in on those efforts in this essay. First, here’s what both the Left and the Right share in common in these debates: Many on both sides of the aisle desire more government control over the editorial decisions made by private platforms. They both advocate more political meddling with the way private firms make decisions about what types of content and communications are allowed on their platforms. In today’s hyper-partisan world,” I argue in my Hill column, “tech platforms have become just another plaything to be dominated by politics and regulation. When the ends justify the means, principles that transcend the battles of the day — like property rights, free speech and editorial independence — become disposable. These are things we take for granted until they’ve been chipped away at and lost.”

Despite a shared objective for greater politicization of media markets, the Left and the Right part ways quickly when it comes to the underlying objectives of expanded government control. As I noted in my Hill op-ed:

there is considerable confusion in the complaints both parties make about “Big Tech.” Democrats want tech companies doing more to limit content they claim is hate speech, misinformation, or that incites violence. Republicans want online operators to do less, because many conservatives believe tech platforms already take down too much of their content.

This makes life very lonely for free speech defenders and classical liberals. Usually in the past, we could count on the Left to be with us in some free speech battles (such as putting an end to “indecency” regulations for broadcast radio and television), while the Right would be with us on others (such as opposition to the “Fairness Doctrine,” or similar mandates). Today, however, it is more common for classical liberals to be fighting with both sides about free speech issues.

My focus is primarily on the Right because, with the rise of Donald Trump and “national conservatism,” there seems to be a lot of soul-searching going on among conservatives about their stance toward private media platforms, and the editorial rights of digital platforms in particular. Continue reading →

Over at Discourse magazine I’ve posted my latest essay on how conservatives are increasingly flirting with the idea of greatly expanding regulatory control of private speech platforms via some sort of common carriage regulation or new Fairness Doctrine for the internet. It begins:

Conservatives have traditionally viewed the administrative state with suspicion and worried about their values and policy prescriptions getting a fair shake within regulatory bureaucracies. This makes their newfound embrace of common carriage regulation and media access theory (i.e., the notion that government should act to force access to private media platforms because they provide an essential public service) somewhat confusing. Recent opinions from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as various comments and proposals of Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Trump signal a remarkable openness to greater administrative control of private speech platforms.

Given the takedown actions some large tech companies have employed recently against some conservative leaders and viewpoints, the frustration of many on the right is understandable. But why would conservatives think they are going to get a better shake from state-regulated monopolists than they would from today’s constellation of players or, more importantly, from a future market with other players and platforms?

I continue on to explain why conservatives should be skeptical of the administrative state being their friend when it comes to the control of free speech. I end by reminding conservatives what President Ronald Reagan said in his 1987 veto of legislation to reestablish the Fairness Doctrine: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”

Read more at Discourse, and down below you will find several other recent essays I’ve written on the topic.

After a slight delay, Jurimetrics has finally published my latest law review article, “Soft Law in U.S. ICT Sectors: Four Case Studies.” It is part of a major symposium that Arizona State University (ASU) Law School put together on “Governing Emerging Technologies Through Soft Law: Lessons For Artificial Intelligence” for the journal. I was 1 of 4 scholars invited to pen foundational essays for this symposium. Jurimetrics is a official publication of the American Bar Association’s Section of Science & Technology Law.

This report was a major undertaking that involved dozens of interviews, extensive historic research, several events and presentations, and then numerous revisions before the final product was released. The final PDF version of the journal article is attached.

Here is the abstract: Continue reading →

Ronald Reagan's presidential portrait, circa 1981With many conservative policymakers and organizations taking a sudden pro-censorial turn and suggesting that government regulation of social media platforms is warranted, it’s a good time for them to re-read President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 veto of Fairness Doctrine legislation. Here’s the key line:

History has shown that the dan­gers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and compe­tition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.

That wisdom is just as applicable today when some conservatives suggest that government intervention is needed to address what they regardless as “bias” or “unfair” treatment on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or whatever else. Ignoring the fact that such meddling would likely violate property rights and freedom of contract — principles that most conservatives say they hold dear — efforts to empower the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, or other regulators would be hugely misguided on First Amendment grounds.

President Reagan understood that there was a better way to approach these issues that was rooted in innovation and First Amendment protections. Here’s hoping that conservatives remember his sage advice. Read his entire veto message here.

Additional Reading:

There is a war going on in the conservative movement over free speech issues and FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly just became a causality of that skirmish. Neil Chilson and I just posted a new essay about this over on the Federalist Society blog. As we note there:

Plenty of people claim to favor freedom of expression, but increasingly the First Amendment has more fair-weather friends than die-hard defenders. Michael O’Rielly, a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), found that out the hard way this week.

Last week, O’Rielly delivered an important speech before the Media Institute highlighting a variety of problematic myths about the First Amendment, as well as “a particularly ominous development in this space.” In a previous political era, O’Rielly’s remarks would have been mainstream conservative fare. But his well-worded warnings are timely with many Democrats and Republicans – including some in the White House – looking to resurrect analog-era speech mandates and let Big Government reassert control over speech decisions in the United States.

Shortly after delivering his remarks, the White House yanked O’Rielly’s nomination to be reappointed to the agency. It was a shocking development that was likely motivated by growing animosities between Republicans on the question of how much control the federal government–and the FCC in particular–should exercise over speech platforms, including platforms that the FCC has no authority to regulate.

For the 30 years that I have been covering media and technology policy, I’ve heard conservatives rail against the Fairness Doctrine, Net Neutrality and arbitrary Big Government only to see many of them now reverse suit and become the biggest defenders of these things as it pertains to speech controls and FCC regulation. It will certainly be interesting to see what a potential future Biden Administration does with the various new regulations that some in the GOP are seeking to impose. Continue reading →

[Co-authored with Connor Haaland and originally published on The Bridge as, “Do Our Leaders Believe in Free Speech and Online Freedom Anymore?”]

The president is a counterpuncher': Trump on familiar ground in ...A major policy battle has developed regarding the wisdom of regulating social media platforms in the United States, with the internet’s most important law potentially in the crosshairs. Leaders in both major parties are calling for sweeping regulation.

Specifically, President Trump and his presumptive opponent in the coming presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, have both called for “Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act to be repealed. Last week, the president took a misguided step in this direction by signing an executive order that, if fully carried out, will result in significantly greater regulation of the internet and of speech.

A Growing Call to Regulate Internet Platforms

The ramifications of these threats and steps could not be more profound. Without Section 230—also known as “the 26 words that created the internet”—we would have a much less advanced internet ecosystem. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia would have never grown as quickly. Indeed, the repeal of Section 230 means many fewer jobs, less information distribution, and, frankly, less joy.

Shockingly, by backing Trump’s recent push for regulating these internet platforms, many conservatives are betraying their own principles—the ones that support freedom of expression and the ability to run private businesses without government interference.

Section 230 limits the liability online intermediaries face for the content and communications that travel over their networks. The immunities granted by Section 230 let online speech and commerce flow freely, without the constant threat of legal action or onerous liability looming overhead for digital platforms. To put it another way, without this provision, today’s vibrant internet ecosystem likely would not exist. Continue reading →

President Trump and his allies have gone to war with social media sites and digital communications platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Decrying supposed anti-conservative “bias,” Trump has even floated an Executive Order aimed at “Preventing Online Censorship,” that entails many new forms of government meddling with these private speech platforms. Section 230 is their crosshairs and First Amendment restraints are being thrown to the wind.

Various others have already documented the many legal things wrong with Trump’s call for greater government oversight of private speech platforms. I want to focus on something slightly different here: The surprising ideological origins of what Trump and his allies are proposing. Because for those of us who are old-timers and have followed communications and media policy for many decades, this moment feels like deja vu all over again, but with the strange twist that supposed “conservatives” are calling for a form of communications collectivism that used to be the exclusive province of hard-core Leftists.

To begin, the truly crazy thing about President Trump and some conservatives saying that social media should be regulated as public forums is not just that they’re abandoning free speech rights, it’s that they’re betraying property rights, too. Treating private media like a “public square” entails a taking of private property. Amazingly, Trump and his followers have taken over the old “media access movement” and given it their own spin. Continue reading →

Last week I attended the Section 230 cage match workshop at the DOJ. It was a packed house, likely because AG Bill Barr gave opening remarks. It was fortuitous timing for me: my article with Jennifer Huddleston, The Erosion of Publisher Liability in American Law, Section 230, and the Future of Online Curation, was published 24 hours before the workshop by the Oklahoma Law Review.

These were my impressions of the event:

I thought it was pretty well balanced event and surprisingly civil for such a contentious topic. There were strong Section 230 defenders and strong Section 230 critics, and several who fell in between. There were a couple cheers after a few pointed statements from panelists, but the audience didn’t seem to fall on one side or the other. I’ll add that my friend and co-blogger Neil Chilson gave an impressive presentation about how Section 230 helped make the “long tail” of beneficial Internet-based communities possible.

AG Bob Barr gave the opening remarks, which are available online. A few things jumped out. He suggested that Section 230 had its place but Internet companies are not an infant industry anymore. In his view, the courts have expanded Section 230 beyond drafters’ intent, and the Reno decision “unbalanced” the protections, which were intended to protect minors. The gist of his statement was that the law needs to be “recalibrated.”

Each of these points were disputed by one or more panelists, but the message to the Internet industry was clear: the USDOJ is scrutinizing industry concentration and its relationship to illegal and antisocial online content.

The workshop signals that there is now a large, bipartisan coalition that would like to see Section 230 “recalibrated.” The problem for this coalition is that they don’t agree on what types of content providers should be liable for and they are often at cross-purposes. The problematic content ranges from sex trafficking, to stalkers, to opiate trafficking, to revenge porn, to unfair political ads. For conservatives, social media companies take down too much content, intentionally helping progressives. For progressives, social media companies leave up too much content, unwittingly helping conservatives.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing way to modify Section 230 that (a) satisfies this shaky coalition, (b) would be practical to comply with, and (c) would be constitutional.

Now, Section 230 critics are right: the law blurs the line between publisher and conduit. But this is not unique to Internet companies. The fact is, courts (and federal agencies) blurred the publisher-conduit dichotomy for fifty years for mass media distributors and common carriers as technology and social norms changed. Some cases that illustrate the phenomenon:

In Auvil v. CBS 60 Minutes, a 1991 federal district court decision, some Washington apple growers sued some local CBS affiliates for airing allegedly defamatory programming. The federal district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the affiliates are conduits of CBS programming. Critically, the court recognized that the CBS affiliates “had the power to” exercise editorial control over the broadcast and “in fact occasionally [did] censor programming . . . for one reason or another.” Still, case dismissed. The principle has been cited by other courts. Publishers can be conduits.

Conduits can also be publishers. In 1989, Congress passed a law requiring phone providers to restrict “dial-a-porn” services to minors. Dial-a-porn companies sued. In Information Providers Coalition v. FCC, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that regulated common carriers are “free under the Constitution to terminate service” to providers of indecent content. The Court relied on its decision a few years earlier in Carlin Communications noting that when a common carrier phone company is connecting thousands of subscribers simultaneously to the same content, the “phone company resembles less a common carrier than it does a small radio station.”

Many Section 230 reformers believe Section 230 mangled the common law would like to see the restoration of the publisher-conduit dichotomy. As our research shows, that dichotomy had already been blurred for decades. Until advocates and lawmakers acknowledge these legal trends and plan accordingly, the reformers risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Relevant research:
Brent Skorup & Jennifer Huddleston, The Erosion of Publisher Liability in American Law, Section 230, and the Future of Online Curation (Oklahoma Law Review).

Brent Skorup & Joe Kane, The FCC and Quasi–Common Carriage: A Case Study of Agency Survival (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology).