Net Neutrality: Whose First Amendment?

It shouldn’t come as any great revelation that when the government proposes regulations affecting the media, there very well might be implications for the First Amendment.  Raising such concerns, and then examining their validity, is a normal part of the regulatory process.

Kyle McSlarrow did just that last Wednesday in a speech to a Media Institute luncheon audience.  As president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association,  McSlarrow was rightly concerned that the FCC’s proposed regulatory enforcement of “net neutrality” would impair the First Amendment rights of Internet service providers, especially to the extent that they offer other types of programming services apart from Internet access.  He also noted that such rules could impair the free speech of start-up content providers who are willing to pay extra for priority distribution of their content to better compete with established entities, and for others who use the Internet.  

The response to McSlarrow’s speech by many proponents of net neutrality regulation was nothing short of remarkable for its rancor.

The underlying assumption of this net neutrality crowd and their ilk was the tired old mantra: Big media are bad.  Corporations are bad.  Corporations don’t deserve First Amendment rights.  The bloggers from this camp (including a former Free Press lawyer) seemed at once incredulous and offended that anyone (except maybe Washington lobbyists) could assert with a straight face that media companies are speakers with First Amendment rights.  

The other underlying assumption involves the revisionist view that the First Amendment is a tool the government has an obligation to use affirmatively to promote diversity of speech, rather than what it was created to be: a protection against government censorship of speech.

It would be bad enough if the reactions to McSlarrow’s speech suffered only from flawed assumptions like these.  That wouldn’t even be so terrible, because one can always challenge another’s assumptions and hope to engage in something resembling a serious debate.

It’s possible to do that, for example, with the response offered by the ACLU, which noted that ISPs do have First Amendment rights when they’re providing their own content, but should function as common carriers (like phone companies) when they’re carrying the content of others.  Whether tiered pricing for different levels of service amounts to discrimination and implicates free speech is at least something that can be debated.    

But the level of vitriol is running so high among many in the net neutrality crowd that some writers are totally twisting what McSlarrow said, and attributing to him words he never uttered and positions he never (and I believe would never) take.  For example, blogger Marvin Ammori (with the Free Press connections) wrote: “According to the NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow … Americans (like you) don’t have rights to access or upload content on the Internet.”  FALSE.  McSlarrow never said any such thing.  Ammori calls McSlarrow’s reasoning “silly” and “offensive.”  But if anything is silly and offensive, it is Ammori’s fabrications.  

One is reminded of the Cold War, when the Soviet propaganda machine excelled at “disinformation” – false information which, if repeated enough and eventually picked up by a credible outlet, would be regarded as true.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother commenting on the more egregious responses to McSlarrow’s speech, because they’re just not worthy of serious comment.  But I’m taking the time because so much of what has been written needs to be identified for what it is – disinformation – that will only stifle meaningful debate and do a disservice to the First Amendment.   

And while we’re talking about this constitutional guarantee, let’s not forget the big picture, which can easily become obscured by the details (and heat) of the moment.  Do we really want the FCC regulating a whole new realm – the Internet – which heretofore has been a safe haven for free speech?  Virtually everyone in the net neutrality camp seems to think this is a great idea.  I do not.  In fact, I think it’s a terrible idea.  For speech to be truly free, government regulators should be kept as far away as possible, whatever the medium.  Maybe this is where the real debate over net neutrality and the First Amendment should focus.       

Chairman Genachowski’s Modest Proposal re Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Genachowski’s proposal to extend and codify the FCC’s “Internet principles,” delivered in a speech just yesterday, has already attracted a substantial amount of commentary.  There is no doubt that his proposed rulemaking will be the subject of much literature issuing from The Media Institute proper, and in this space as well, in days to come.

For now, however, just a few observations, in no particular order of importance: First, for those of us who take a perverse delight in the use and abuse of language in policymaking circles, there is much that is droll in the way that industry players have responded.  Like a man about to be executed, seizing on the offer of a last cigarette as a chance to spin or delay the inevitable, many of the broadband access providers’ comments seek to glom onto some part of the chairman’s proposal as will allow them to buy time.

Thus have several of the companies, and their associations, complimented the chairman for promising an "open proceeding" or some such.  Not to be smug, if we at The Media Institute were lobbyists we too would probably say such things.  Since, however, we are not, we can speak more plainly.

The reason this proposal has come into being, and will undoubtedly be passed in some form, is not because of some new threat (or old threat, for that matter) to the “free and open” Internet.  Rather like blaming, as someone once said, the Johnstown Flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, the record of “abuse” by broadband providers is so inconsequential it doesn’t begin to explain the need for such an intrusion into the marketplace.

No, the reason this proposal is at hand is because of something more prosaic.  It is, would you believe, because of politics.  It is because there are now three Democrats on the Commission and only two Republicans.  (Some would argue that even during Kevin Martin’s reign there were three Democrats, but that’s another matter entirely.)

The best evidence that this is the case can be seen in comments from inside the FCC itself, specifically those of the Republican commissioners, McDowell and Baker.  Not only do they express skepticism about the wisdom of the proposed rulemaking, they openly question whether “factual and legal conclusions may have been drawn before the process has begun.”

Back in the day, at the dawn of the Internet, the concern was that the FCC not become the Federal Computer Commission.  That was then and this is now, but the concern that animated that sentiment survives.  It is that the government is a poor substitute for the marketplace in allocating resources.

Because Chairman Genachowski knows that the strongest criticism of his proposal is that it will frustrate investment and innovation in the broadband space, he looks to preempt the argument by denying it.  His plan, he says, amounts only to “rules of the road” that will actually stimulate investment and innovation.

Well, time will tell but the view from here is much less rosy.  The greater likelihood is that: (1) There will be less private sector investment than would otherwise be the case; (2) that the investments that are made will come from tech firms that employ a peculiarly large number of lobbyists; and (3) that when the dust settles, the only lasting impact will be in the legal precedent established by putting the camel’s nose of government under this particular tent.

Time Warner Cable and Consumption-Based Billing


Time Warner Cable has had quite a bumpy ride for the past couple weeks.  Having announced earlier a plan to conduct trials of a consumption-based billing policy, in which users would be charged based on the amount of data they download and upload, by week’s end the company was obliged to suspend the trials altogether.

What happened in between were the protests of some customers and bloggers, the usual mischief of some of the “public interest” lobbies (they’re from Washington and they know what you want), and most importantly, the intervention, as critics, of a congressman (Massa) and a U.S. senator (Schumer).

Aside from the fact that broadband users who consume unusually large amounts of bandwidth, downloading movies and the like, would have to pay more, it’s not immediately clear what’s wrong with consumption-based billing.  That is, after all, the way we pay for most things, and it protects those who use less from having to subsidize the payments of those who use much more.

No matter.  In an age when information “wants to be free,” and everyone is entitled to everything, arguments based on marketplace economics are probably not going to persuade a lot of people, and certainly not grandstanding members of Congress.

Which is why, at the end of last week, Glenn Britt, Time Warner Cable’s CEO, announced a suspension of the trials scheduled for later this year in Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Greensboro, N.C.

In a display of their usual savoir-faire, several of the “public interest” moguls were full of gloating, like that of Timothy Karr of Free Press: “We’re glad to see Time Warner Cable’s price-gouging scheme collapse in the face of consumer opposition.  Let this be a lesson to other Internet service providers looking to head down a similar path.”

Only slightly less tiresome was the statement of Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge: “The company properly listened to its subscribers, the public and policymakers, all of whom (emphasis added) were highly critical of the proposition in the first place.”

The celebrations, however, may be a bit premature.  What Time Warner Cable said was that it was suspending the trials, not abandoning consumption-based billing, and that in the meantime it was going to deploy measurement tools, a kind of “gas gauge,” that would allow users to see how much bandwidth they were using each month.

Assume that some months from now it transpires that the vast majority of users consume bandwidth in amounts that would qualify them for the lowest and cheapest tiers, while only a small minority would have to pay at the highest rates.  Now that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?