When the FCC adopted net neutrality rules earlier this year, Chairman Tom Wheeler assured skeptics that rules regulating broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) “do not regulate Internet content.”
This theory rests on a seriously flawed (though all too common) understanding of the First Amendment. The troubling fact is that the FCC’s new regulations governing ISPs – the companies that deliver Internet content to people’s homes – threaten basic liberties guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.
At the time of the Constitution, the press meant primarily the printing press. The Founders provided separate First Amendment protection to the operators of printing presses because the English had censored speech through laws prohibiting the use of a printing press without a government license. As Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, puts it: “The free press guarantees made clear that this potentially dangerous technology was protected alongside direct in-person communications.”
The FCC says that ISPs don’t need First Amendment protection because they are just a means by which other people communicate. In the FCC’s view, only “speech” itself is deserving of constitutional protection. Under the FCC’s interpretation of the Constitution, the people have a right to put words on paper, but they would have no right to circulate the words they write on the Internet.
As the Supreme Court observed more than 100 years ago, if the ability to circulate a newspaper to the public were not protected by the Constitution, the right to print a newspaper “would be of little value.” Think again of the owners of printing presses: the ideas they print are not their own, yet their operation of their printing machines is protected because they are responsible for the dissemination of others’ ideas to the public at large. If the government instead had the right to control the operation of printing presses (or the Internet), it could easily prevent the public from receiving ideas the government wishes to censor (which is exactly what the King of England had once done).
That’s why it’s unconstitutional for the FCC to apply telephone-era communications laws to mass-media communications on the Internet, which is what it did when it declared the Internet is a “public utility.” Telephone service providers are not members of the press because phones offer private communications between individuals, but cable operators are protected because they distribute content intended for mass consumption. If you’ve ever read the news or watched a video on the Internet, you already know ISPs are much more like cable providers than phone companies.
Unfortunately, the FCC’s decision to treat ISPs like telephone companies rather than cable operators gives the government the ability to censor the Internet at will. With other forms of mass media, Congress must respect the limits of the Constitution, because newspaper companies, broadcasters, cable operators and others can invoke the protections of the First Amendment.
Thanks to the FCC, ISPs can’t. If the FCC’s rules stand, Congress could enact laws prohibiting ISPs from transmitting content Congress doesn’t like, and ISPs would have no right to protest in court.
Wheeler keeps assuring everyone that net neutrality will not “embolden authoritarian states to tighten their grip on the Internet.” But constitutional law indicates the rules the FCC actually adopted empower the government to suppress the speech of mass-media communications networks.
Rules that permit government censorship won’t keep the Internet open. That’s what the First Amendment is for.
Campbell is the executive director of the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology (www CBIT.org).