Intermediary Deputization & Section 230

While the Net Neutrality debate has been in the foreground, Congress has been quietly moving forward legislation that risks fundamentally modifying the liability protection for Internet intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and PayPal, and forever changing the Internet. The proposed legislation has good intentions of stopping sex trafficking, but in an effort to stop a few bad actors the current overly broad version of the bill risks not only stopping the next Internet innovation, but also failing to achieve even this laudable goal.

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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 →

The house version of the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), has undergone significant changes that appear to enable it to both truly address the scourge of online sex trafficking and maintain important internet liability protection that encourages a free and open internet. On Tuesday, this amended version passed the House Judiciary Committee. Like most legislation, this latest draft isn’t perfect. But it has made significant steps towards maintaining freedom online while addressing the misdeeds of a few.

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As I have previously written about, a bill currently up for debate in Congress runs the risk of gutting critical liability protections for internet intermediaries. Earlier today the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed out of committee with an amendment attempted to remedy some of the most damaging changes to Section 230 in the original act. While this amendment has gained support from some industry groups, it does not fully address the concerns regarding changes to intermediary liability under Section 230. While the amended version shows increased awareness of the far reaching consequences of the act, it does not fully address issues that could have a chilling effect on speech on the internet and risk stifling future internet innovation.

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[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 →

If Congress and the President wanted to prevent intrusive regulation of the Internet, how would they do it? They know that silence on the issue wouldn’t protect Internet services. As Congress learned in the 1960s and 1970s with cable TV, congressional silence, to the FCC, looks like permission to enact a far-reaching regulatory regime.

In the 1990s, Congress knew the FCC would be tempted to regulate the Internet and Internet services and that silence would be seen as an invitation to regulate the Internet. Congress and President Clinton therefore passed a 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which stated:

It is the policy of the United States…to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.

But this statement raised the possibility that the FCC would regulate Internet access providers and would claim (as FCC defenders do today) they were not regulating “the Internet,” only access providers. To preempt such sophistry, Congress added that the “interactive computer services” shielded from regulation include:

specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet….

Congress proved prescient. For over a decade, as the FCC’s traditional areas of regulation waned in importance, advocates and FCC officials have sought to regulate Internet access providers and the Internet. After two failed attempts to regulate providers and enforce net neutrality norms, the FCC decided to regulate Internet access providers with Title II, the same provisions regulating telephone and telegraph providers. Section 230 featured prominently in the dissents of commissioners Pai and O’Rielly who both noted that the Open Internet Order was a simple rejection of the plain words of Congress. Nevertheless, two judges on DC Circuit Court of Appeals blessed those regulations and the Open Internet Order in 2016.

If “unfettered from Federal regulation” means anything, doesn’t it mean that the FCC cannot use Title II, its most stringent regulatory regime, to regulate Internet access providers? Is there any combination of words Congress could draft that would protect Internet access providers and Internet services from Title II?

There is a pending appeal challenging the Open Internet Order before the DC Circuit and after that is appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in particular, might be receptive to a common-sense argument that “unfettered from Federal regulation” is hazy around the edges but it cannot mean regulation of ISPs’ content, services, protocols, network topology, and business models.

I understand the sentiment that a net neutrality compromise is urgently needed to save the Internet from Title II. But until the Open Internet Order appeals have concluded, I think it’s premature to compromise and grant the FCC permanent authority to regulate the Internet with vague standards (e.g., no one knows what “reasonable throttling” means). A successful appeal could mean a third and final court loss for net neutrality purists, thereby restoring Section 230’s free-market protections for the Internet. Until the Supreme Court denies cert or agrees with the FCC that up is down, black is white, and agencies can ignore clear statutes, I’m not persuaded that Congress should nullify its own deregulatory language of Section 230 with a net neutrality compromise.

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 success of the Internet and the modern digital economy was due to its open, generative nature, driven by the ethos of “permissionless innovation.” A “light-touch” policy regime helped make this possible. Of particular legal importance was the immunization of online intermediaries from punishing forms of liability associated with the actions of third parties.

As “software eats the world” and the digital revolution extends its reach to the physical world, policymakers should extend similar legal protections to other “generative” tools and platforms, such as robotics, 3D printing, and virtual reality.

In other words, we need a Section 230 for the “maker” movement. Continue reading →

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.

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 →