Free Speech for Me, But When it Comes to Thee I Need to Think About It

The FCC will hold an upcoming workshop on free speech and net neutrality regulations that features a really interesting array of speakers:

Michele Combs from the Christian Coalition; Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit; Jonathan Moore, Rowdy Orbit; Ruth Livier, YLSE; ; Garlin Gilchrist, Center for Community Change; Bob Corn-Revere, Davis Wright Tremaine; Jack Balkin, Yale Law School; and Andrew Schwartzman, Media Access Project.

“Interesting” in that most of* this group shares a common viewpoint to the effect that net neutrality regulations are necessary to protect free speech on the Internet. This is not the only viewpoint that exists on the subject, of course: there are many of us who believe that the proposed framework of regulations is at best neutral to free expression and under many plausible outcomes, positively harmful.

The reason for this is that the proposed anti-discrimination rule makes it illegal for ISPs to sell enhanced transport to publishers who require it to deliver high bandwidth, live interactive services to people on the Internet. A broad non-discrimination rule pretty well confines the future Internet to the range of applications it supports today, low-bandwidth interaction and static content, and even those are in doubt on wireless access networks with limited bandwidth.

The Genachowski FCC has been very good so far on putting panels together with diverse viewpoints, so the stark failure of the Commission to respect viewpoint diversity in this particular case is rather surprising. It is particularly ironic that on a panel devoted to viewpoint diversity, in essence, that the Commission has chosen viewpoints that represent unanimity rather than diversity.

UPDATE: One thing I have to say about the FCC is that it’s a very responsive agency. I sent an e-mail to the panel coordinator late Friday complaining about the panel’s lack of diversity, and despite the fact that it was sent after business hours on Friday, I got a response today in the form of a phone call from an FCC staffer. The explanation they offer is that this panel is simply meant to cover Internet openness, and there will be additional panels on the issues I’ve raised from January to March. So the issue of whether new rules are needed to protect free speech will be covered in these future panels, and doesn’t need any discussion right now, per the FCC’s viewpoint.

The scheduling is hard to fathom. Earlier this week, there was a technical panel in which academics, operators, and equipment vendors with different viewpoints on net neutrality regulations educated Commission staff on Internet organization and traffic. That panel had people who range all the way from strong supporters of the regulations to strong opponents, but they didn’t explore the policy space directly. The upcoming panel simply happens to be more uniform in its views, but their charter is to explain how they benefit from Internet openness.

In the overall scheme of things, the Internet is not actually more open than many other networks with which we’re familiar, of course; the telephone network permits anyone to communicate with anyone, as did the telegraph network and as does the US mail. And you can’t do anything you want on the Internet, you have to abide by the law.

To the extent that the Internet is not open, it’s chiefly government that closes off particular avenues of expression: The obvious examples are the DMCA’s anti-piracy provisions, the US ban on kiddie porn, Germany’s ban on Nazi organizing and Scientology, and China’s ban on access to native Google searches. Each government has decided on policy grounds to close the Internet in ways that suit its interests, so if the regulations simply focus on commercial restrictions and enablements of forms of Internet-based speech and don’t restrict the power of the FCC to issue ex post and ex ante regulations, we won’t have accomplished much in this process.

The area of controversy is in between the technical issues discussed in the first workshop and the openness issues that will be discussed Tuesday. And as we will see, the advocates of net neutrality don’t understand enough about the Internet’s operation and potential to have much insight into whether and how it’s going to be regulated going forward.

*UPDATE 2: At least one of the speakers will in fact caution the Commission about diving in with the new regulations without clear evidence of harm.

2 thoughts on “Free Speech for Me, But When it Comes to Thee I Need to Think About It

  1. “The reason for this is that the proposed anti-discrimination rule makes it illegal for ISPs to sell enhanced transport to publishers who require it to deliver high bandwidth, live interactive services to people on the Internet.”

    You’re weaving between two different types of anti-discrimination rules here – call it the no-exclusives type rule (any service must be available to all for a given price), and the no special-handling rule (no service can have priority over another service). I’m leaning towards the innovation arguments that the no-special-handling rule would be wrong. But the no-exclusives rule is a different matter, and I suspect that’s the focus of many of the panelists.

    “it’s chiefly government. …”

    Bah. This is Libertarian-type nonsense. The DMCA is much better thought of as a business monopoly measure of big corporations.

  2. Yes, there are two proposed anti-discrimination rules, one that I like and one that I don’t like.

    And yes, I generally like anti-piracy laws: there’s no Constitutional right to profit from the unauthorized sale of another guy’s stuff, either through advertising or subscription, and large-scale piracy always has a profit motive.

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