First Amendment & Free Speech

Internet regulation advocates lost their fight at the FCC, which voted in December 2017 to rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order. Regulation advocates have now taken their “net neutrality” regulations to the states.

Some state officials–via procurement contracts, executive order, or legislation–are attempting to monitor and regulate traffic management techniques and Internet service provider business models in the name of net neutrality. No one, apparently, told these officials that government-mandated net neutrality principles are dead in the US.

As the litigation over the 2015 rules showed, our national laissez faire policy towards the Internet and our First Amendment guts any attempt to enforce net neutrality. Recall that the 1996 amendments to the Communications Act announce a clear national policy about the Internet: Continue reading →

Broadcast license renewal challenges have troubled libertarians and free speech advocates for decades. Despite our efforts (and our law journal articles on the abuse of the licensing process), license challenges are legal. In fact, political parties, prior FCCs, and activist groups have encouraged license challenges based on TV content to ensure broadcasters are operating in “the public interest.” Further, courts have compelled and will compel a reluctant FCC to investigate “news distortion” and other violations of FCC broadcast rules. It’s a troubling state of affairs that has been pushed back into relevancy because FCC license challenges are in the news.

In recent years the FCC, whether led by Democrats or Republicans, has preferred to avoid tricky questions surrounding license renewals. Chairman Pai, like most recent FCC chairs, has been an outspoken defender of First Amendment protections and norms. He opposed, for instance, the Obama FCC’s attempt to survey broadcast newsrooms about their coverage. He also penned an op-ed bringing attention to the fact that federal NSF funding was being used by left-leaning researchers to monitor and combat “misinformation and propaganda” on social media.

The silence of the Republican commissioners today about license renewals is likely primarily because they have higher priorities (like broadband deployment and freeing up spectrum) than intervening in the competitive media marketplace. But second, and less understood, is because whether to investigate a news station isn’t really up to them. Courts can overrule them and compel an investigation.

Political actors have used FCC licensing procedures for decades to silence political opponents and unfavorable media. For reasons I won’t explore here, TV and radio broadcasters have diminished First Amendment rights and the public is permitted to challenge their licenses at renewal time.

So, progressive “citizens groups” even in recent years have challenged license renewals for broadcasters for “one-sided programming.” Unfortunately, it works. For instance, in 2004 the promises of multi-year renewal challenges from outside groups and the risk of payback from a Democrat FCC forced broadcast stations to trim a documentary critical of John Kerry from 40 minutes to 4 minutes. And, unlike their cable counterparts, broadcasters censor nude scenes in TV and movies because even a Janet Jackson Superbowl scenario can lead to expensive license challenges.

These troubling licensing procedures and pressure points were largely unknown to most people, but, on October 11, President Trump tweeted:

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

So why hasn’t the FCC said they won’t investigate NBC and other broadcast station owners? It may be because courts can compel the FCC to investigate “news distortion.”

This is exactly what happened to the Clinton FCC. As Melody Calkins and I wrote in August about the FCC’s news distortion rule:

Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

The commissioners might personally wish broadcasters had full First Amendment protections and want to dismiss all challenges but current law permits and encourages license challenges. The commission can be compelled to act because of the sins of omission of prior FCCs: deciding to retain the news distortion rule and other antiquated “public interest” regulations for broadcasters. The existence of these old media rules mean the FCC’s hands are tied.

By Brent Skorup and Melody Calkins

Recently, the FCC sought comments for its Media Modernization Initiative in its effort to “eliminate or modify [media] regulations that are outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome.” The regulatory thicket for TV distribution has long encumbered broadcast and cable providers. These rules encourage large, homogeneous cable TV bundles and burden cable and satellite operators with high compliance costs. (See the complex web of TV regulations at the Media Metrics website.)

One reason “skinny bundles” from online video providers and cable operators are attracting consumers is that online video circumvents the FCC’s Rube Goldberg-like system altogether. The FCC should end its 50-year experiment with TV regulation, which, among other things, has raised the cost of TV and degraded the First Amendment rights of media outlets.

The proposal to eliminate legacy media rules garnered a considerable amount of support from a wide range of commenters. In our filed reply comments, we identify four regulatory rules ripe for removal:

  • News distortion. This uncodified, under-the-radar rule allows the commission to revoke a broadcasters’ license if the FCC finds that a broadcaster deliberately engages in “news distortion, staging, or slanting.” The rule traces back to the FCC’s longstanding position that it can revoke licenses from broadcast stations if programming is not “in the public interest.”

    Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

    “Slanted” and distorted news can be found in (unregulated) cable news, newspapers, Twitter, and YouTube. The news distortion rule should be repealed and broadcasters should have regulatory parity (and their full First Amendment rights) restored.
  • Must-carry. The rule requires cable operators to distribute the programming of local broadcast stations at broadcasters’ request. (Stations carrying relatively low-value broadcast networks seek carriage via must-carry. Stations carrying popular networks like CBS and NBC can negotiate payment from cable operators via “retransmission consent” agreements.) Must-carry was narrowly sustained by the Supreme Court in 1994 against a First Amendment challenge, on the grounds that cable operators had monopoly power in the pay-TV market. Since then, however, cable’s market share shrank from 95% to 53%. Broadcast stations have far more options for distribution, including satellite TV, telco TV, and online distribution and it’s unlikely the rules would survive a First Amendment challenge today.
  • Network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity. These rules limit how and when broadcast programming can be distributed and allow the FCC to intervene if a cable operator breaches a contract with a broadcast station. But the (exempted) distribution of hundreds of non-broadcast channels (e.g., CNN, MTV, ESPN) show that programmers and distributors are fully capable of forming private negotiations without FCC oversight. These rules simply make licensing negotiations more difficult and invite FCC intervention.

Finally, we identify retransmission consent regulations and compulsory licenses for repeal. Because “retrans” interacts with copyright matters outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction, we encourage the FCC work with the Copyright Office in advising Congress to repeal these statutes. Cable operators dislike the retrans framework and broadcasters dislike being compelled to license programming at regulated rates. These interventions simply aren’t needed (hundreds of cable and online-only TV channels operate outside of this framework) and neither the FCC nor the Copyright Office particularly likes being the referees in these fights. The FCC should break the stalemate and approach the Copyright Office about advocating for direct licensing of broadcast TV content.

[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. Continue reading →

Title II allows the FCC to determine what content and media Internet access providers must transmit on their own private networks, so the First Amendment has constantly dogged the FCC’s “net neutrality” proceedings. If the Supreme Court agrees to take up an appeal from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected a First Amendment challenge this summer, it will likely be because of Title II’s First Amendment deficiencies.

Title II has always been about handicapping ISPs qua speakers and preventing ISPs from offering curated Internet content. As former FCC commissioner Copps said, absent the Title II rules, “a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service.” Tim Wu told members of Congress that net neutrality was intended to prevent ISPs from favoring, say, particular news sources or sports teams.

But just as a cable company chooses to offer some channels and not others, and a search engine chooses to promote some pages and not others, choosing to offer a curated Internet to, say, children, religious families, or sports fans involves editorial decisions. As communications scholar Stuart Benjamin said about Title II’s problem, under current precedent, ISPs “can say they want to engage in substantive editing, and that’s enough for First Amendment purposes.”

Title II – Bringing Broadcast Regulation to the Internet

Title II regulation of the Internet is frequently compared to the Fairness Doctrine, which activists used for decades to drive conservatives out of broadcast radio and TV. As a pro-net neutrality media professor explained in The Atlantic last year, the motivation for the Fairness Doctrine and Title II Internet regulation is the same: to “rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture.” This is why there is almost perfect overlap between the organizations and advocates who support the Fairness Doctrine and those who lobbied for Title II regulation of the Internet. Continue reading →

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, TechFreedom and a coalition of free-market groups urged Congress to protect Americans against malicious or frivolous litigation that threatens to stifle free speech and undermine the digital economy. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the coalition called for passage of H.R. 2304, the SPEAK FREE Act, which would give defendants across the nation access to a special motion to dismiss SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). The bill would also empower courts to shift fees, so that defendants who prevail on an anti­-SLAPP motion would not have to face legal costs.

The coalition letter reads:

Each year, a multitude of Americans fall victim to lawsuits called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) that are aimed at unfairly intimidating and silencing them. These kinds of lawsuits are highly effective, despite being without merit, since the legal costs, invasion of privacy, and hassle associated with fighting them is rarely considered a worthwhile use of individuals’ time.

SLAPPs threaten online free speech and the business models that thrive on consumer reviews,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “Without an easy judicial mechanism to dismiss groundless lawsuits and shift fees, consumers and small businesses often have no choice but to relent to the demands of companies with deeper pockets. 28 states have already adopted anti-SLAPP standards — it’s time for Congress to do the same.”

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We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org.

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is long and complex and the challenge to it is likewise difficult to untangle. The agency regularly engages in ad hoc rulemaking that results, per Judge Posner, in “unprincipled compromises of Rube Goldberg complexity among contending interest groups viewed merely as clamoring suppliants who have somehow to be conciliated.” The Open Internet Order is no exception and therefore faces several legal vulnerabilities.

In my view, the soft underbelly of the Order is the agency’s position that ISPs are not First Amendment speakers. While courts are generally very deferential to agencies, they are not deferential on constitutional questions. Further, the court panel (two Democrat appointees, one Republican appointee), unfortunately, was not in the carriers’ favor. The major carriers, however, have focused their arguments on whether the agency should receive deference in classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

That said, it’s possible the major carriers could get at least a partial win with their arguments. That likelihood is increased because Alamo Broadband and Dan Berninger raised the First Amendment problems with the Order. Given the strength of the First Amendment arguments, the Court might shy away from reaching the issue of whether ISPs are speakers. Below, some thoughts on the moments during oral arguments that surprised me and what went according to predictions.

The Unexpected

A receptive ear in Judge Williams re: the First Amendment arguments. (Good for: ISPs) The First Amendment arguments went better than I’d expected. Alamo and Berninger’s counsel, Brett Shumate, argued the First Amendment issues well and had good responses for skeptical questions. Shumate found a receptive ear in Judge Williams, who seemed to understand the serious First Amendment risks posed by the Order. Williams repeatedly brought up the fact that MetroPCS a few years ago tried to curate the Internet and provide its customers free YouTube, only to face resistance from the FCC and net neutrality activists.

The other two judges were more skeptical but Shumate corrected some misconceptions. The biggest substantive objection from Srinivasan, who sounded the most skeptical of the First Amendment arguments, was that if the Court reaches the First Amendment issues, it has determined that the FCC has reasonably classified Internet access as a common carrier service. He suggested that this means the First Amendment issues mostly disappear. No, Shumate explained. Congress and the FCC can call services whatever they want. They could declare Google Search or Twitter feeds a common carrier service tomorrow and that would have zero effect on whether filtering by Google and Twitter is protected by the First Amendment. Tatel asked whether Section 230’s liability protections suggest ISPs are common carriers and Shumate corrected that misconception, a subject I have written on before.

A major FCC concession that ISPs have to option to change their offerings and escape common carrier regulation. (Good for: ISPs) Title II advocates are spinning the terse First Amendment exchanges as a victory. I’m not convinced. The reason the arguments didn’t generate more heat was because the FCC lawyer made a huge concession at the outset: ISPs that choose to filter the Internet are not covered by the Open Internet Order.

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”

Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”

FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then they drop out of the definition of [BIAS] and the rules don’t apply to them.”

This admission seriously undermines the purposes of the Order. The FCC is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules. That seems to mean that Comcast’s Stream Internet protocol television service, where it is curating streaming TV programs, is not covered by the rules. If Facebook’s Free Basics or a similar service launched in the US giving free, limited access to the Web, that is not covered by the Order. Finally, this means that the many broadband packages that offer family-friendly filtering are outside of the FCC’s rules. It’s not clear how much remains to be regulated since all ISPs reserve the right to filter content and each filters at least some content.

Judge Tatel directing most questioning. (Good for: wash) Many view Judge Tatel as the “swing vote” but I was surprised at the relative quiet from Williams and Srinivasan. Tatel was the most inquisitive, by my listening. He was much more skeptical of some of the FCC’s arguments regarding interconnection than I expected but also more skeptical of the First Amendment arguments than I expected.

Little discussion of Chevron Step 0. (Good for: FCC) Many on the free-market side wanted to make this case about Chevron Step 0 and the notion that Title II is too economically and socially significant to warrant deference. Unfortunately, at oral argument there was very little discussion of Chevron Step 0.

The Expected

Focus on agency discretion. (Good for: FCC) The judges generally seem to see this as a straightforward Chevron case and the questions focused on Chevron Step 1, whether there is ambiguity in the statute about “offering telecommunications” for the FCC to interpret. As expected, the FCC did fairly well in their arguments because these technical issues are very hard to untangle.

On Chevron Step 2, whether the reinterpretation of “telecommunications service” to include Internet access was reasonable, the US Telecom attorney was strong. He leaned heavily on the fact that in Section 230, which amends the Communications Act, Congress announces a national policy that the Internet and specifically Internet access services, should remain “unfettered by Federal regulation.” That would seem to preclude the FCC from using, at the very least, its most powerful regulatory weapon–common carriage–against Internet access providers. Even if “telecommunications service” is ambiguous, he stated, it was unreasonable to include Internet access in that definition.

Focus on whether mobile broadband can be properly classified under Title II. (Benefit: ISPs) As many commentators have noted, the idea that the traditional phone network and the mobile broadband network can be classified as the same interconnected network is far-fetched. Each judge seemed very skeptical of the FCC’s argument and Tatel suggested there was a lack of adequate notice.

Srinivasan pointed out that striking down the wireless rules and maintaining the wireline rules would mean that using the same tablet in different areas of your house would lead to different regulatory treatment, depending on whether you’re on the cellular broadband network or Wifi. Title II supporters think this is pretty clever gotcha but communications law already abounds with seemingly absurd FCC- and court-created legal distinctions. (The FCC invents its own absurd distinction and offers vastly different regulatory treatment for DNS operated by an ISP v. DNS operated by literally anyone else.)

Conclusion

Predictions about major regulatory cases are notoriously difficult. I’ve read (and made) enough predictions about big court cases to know that prognosticators almost always get it wrong. If that’s the case, at least consider one thought-provoking outcome: the rules are largely struck down because the FCC provided inadequate notice on most of the major issues of classification.

If the rules, in contrast, were sustained under Chevron and judged to have had adequate notice, the Court would likely need to confront the First Amendment issues. I don’t think Tatel and Srinivasan, especially, want to rule on these hard constitutional questions. The judges must know the Supreme Court has, as Prof. Susan Crawford says, an “absolutist approach” to the First Amendment that protects speakers of all kinds. Sustaining the rules means the FCC risks a loss on First Amendment grounds on appeal that would nearly eliminate the ability of the FCC to regulate the Internet. For that reason, and because of the notice problems, the Court may strike down the rules on notice and comment grounds, thereby preserving the ability of the FCC to take a fourth bite at the apple.

On October 7th I appeared on a webinar hosted by Prof. Barry Umansky and Ball State’s Digital Policy Institute about the FCC’s Title II case before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, US Telecom Association v. FCC. The other panelists were Andrew Schwartzman of Georgetown University and Stuart Brotman of Harvard Law School and the Brookings Institution. Check it out, but here’s a brief summary of our hour-long discussion. Continue reading →

As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said of the Internet, “It is our printing press.” Unfortunately, for First Amendment purposes, regulators and courts treat our modern printing presses — electronic media — very differently from the traditional ones. Therefore, there is persistent political and activist pressure on regulators to rule that Internet intermediaries — like social networks and search engines — are not engaging in constitutionally-protected speech.

Most controversial is the idea that, as content creators and curators, Internet service providers are speakers with First Amendment rights. The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order designates ISPs as common carriers and generally prohibits ISPs from blocking Internet content. The agency asserts outright that ISPs “are not speakers.” These Title II rules may be struck down on procedural grounds, but the First Amendment issues pose a significant threat to the new rules.

ISPs are Speakers
Courts and Congress, as explained below, have long recognized that ISPs possess editorial discretion. Extensive ISP filtering was much more common in the 1990s but still exists today. Take JNet and DNet. These ISPs block large portions of Internet content that may violate religious principles. They also block neutral services like gaming and video if the subscriber wishes. JNet offers several services, including DSL Internet access, and markets itself to religious Jews. It is server-based (not client-based) and offers several types of filters, including application-based blocking, blacklists, and whitelists. Similarly, DNet, targeted mostly to Christian families in the Carolinas, offers DSL and wireless server-based filtering of content like pornography and erotic material. A strict no-blocking rule on the “last mile” access connection, which most net neutrality proponents want enforced, would prohibit these types of services. Continue reading →