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.