First Amendment & Free Speech

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

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.”


We can be reached for comment at

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.)


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 →

On Thursday, it was my great pleasure to participate in a Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) event on “Online Privacy Regulation: The Challenge of Defining Harm.” The entire event video can be found on YouTube here, but down below I pasted the clip of just my remarks. Other speakers at the event included:  FTC Commissioner Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner; John B. Morris, Jr., the Associate Administrator and Director of Internet Policy athe U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Katherine Armstrong, Counsel at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. Glenn Lammi of the WLF moderated the session.

My remarks drew upon a few recent law review articles I have published relating digital privacy debates to previous debates over free speech and online child safety issues. (Here are those articles: 1, 2, 3).

Last month, my Mercatus Center colleague Brent Skorup published a major scoop: police departments around the country are scanning social media to assign people individualized “threat ratings” — green, yellow, or red. This week, police are complaining that the public is using social media to track them back.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has expressed concerns that Waze, the social traffic app owned by Google, could be used to target police officers. The National Sherriff’s Association has also complained about the app.

To be clear, Waze does not allow anybody to track individual officers. Users of the app can drop a pin on a map letting drivers know that there is police activity (or traffic jams, accidents, or traffic enforment cameras) in the area.

That’s it.

Continue reading →

Yesterday, the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party issued a press release providing more detailed guidance on how it would like to see Europe’s so-called “right to be forgotten” implemented and extended. The most important takeaway from the document was that, as Reuters reported, “European privacy regulators want Internet search engines such as Google and Microsoft’s Bing to scrub results globally.” Moreover, as The Register reported, the press release made it clear that “Europe’s data protection watchdogs say there’s no need for Google to notify webmasters when it de-lists a page under the so-called “right to be forgotten” ruling.” (Here’s excellent additional coverage from Bloomberg: Said to Face EU Right-to-Be-Forgotten Rules“). These actions make it clear that European privacy regulators hope to expand the horizons of the right to be forgotten in a very significant way.

The folks over at Marketplace radio asked me to spend a few minutes with them today discussing the downsides of this proposal. Here’s the quick summary of what I told them: Continue reading →

DroneThe use of unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones,” for private and commercial uses remains the subject of much debate. The issue has been heating up lately after Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UASs into the nation’s airspace system by 2015 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The debate has thus far centered mostly around the safety and privacy-related concerns associated with private use of drones. The FAA continues to move slowly on this front based on a fear that private drones could jeopardize air safety or the safety of others on the ground. Meanwhile, some privacy advocates are worried that private drones might be used in ways that invade private spaces or even public areas where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For these and other reasons, the FAA’s current ban on private operation of drones in the nation’s airspace remains in place.

But what about the speech-related implications of this debate? After all, private and commercial UASs can have many peaceful, speech-related uses. Indeed, to borrow Ithiel de Sola Pool’s term, private drones can be thought of as “technologies or freedom” that expand and enhance the ability of humans to gather and share information, thus in turn expanding the range of human knowledge and freedom.

A new Mercatus Center at George Mason University working paper, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones,” deals with these questions.  This 59-page working paper was authored by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton. (Love is currently a Law Clerk for Judge Carolyn B. McHugh in 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Lawson and Holton are affliated with the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.)

“To date, little attention has been paid to the First Amendment implications of the [FAA] ban,” note Love, Lawson, and Holton. Their article argues that “aerial photography with UASs, whether commercial or not, is protected First Amendment activity, particularly for news-gathering purposes. The FAA must take First Amendment-protected uses of this technology into account as it proceeds with meeting its congressional mandate to promulgate rules for domestic UASs.” They conclude by noting that “The dangers of [the FAA’s] regulatory approach are no mere matter of esoteric administrative law. Rather, as we have demonstrated, use of threats to enforce illegally promulgated rules, in particular a ban on journalistic use of UASs, infringes upon perhaps our most cherished constitutional right, that of free speech and a free press.” Continue reading →

Verizon v. FCC, the court decision overturning the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality rules, didn’t rule directly on the First Amendment issues. It did, however, reject the reasoning of net neutrality advocates who claim Internet service providers (ISPs) are not entitled to freedom of speech.

The court recognized that, in terms of the functionality that it offers consumers and the economic relationships among industry participants, the Internet is as similar to analog cable networks as it is to analog telephone networks. As a result, the court considered most of the issues in the net neutrality case to be “indistinguishable” from those addressed in Midwest Video II, a seminal case addressing the FCC’s authority over cable systems. The court’s emphasis on the substantive similarities between analog cable services, which are clearly entitled to First Amendment protection, indicates that ISPs are likewise entitled to protection.

Net neutrality advocates argued that ISPs are not First Amendment “speakers” because ISPs do not exercise editorial discretion over Internet content. In essence, these advocates argued that ISPs forfeited their First Amendment rights as a result of their “actual conduct” in the marketplace.

Though the court didn’t address the First Amendment issues directly, the court’s reasoning regarding common carrier issues indicates that the “actual conduct” of ISPs is legally irrelevant to their status as First Amendment speakers. Continue reading →