By Tim Karr
Think you have the right to speak freely via cellphones, websites and social media? Well, the companies that provide you with access to the Internet don’t.
The framers drafted the First Amendment as a check on government authority — not corporate power. But whether we’re texting friends, sharing photos on Facebook, or posting updates on Twitter, we’re connecting with each other and the Internet via privately controlled networks.
And the owners of these networks are now twisting the intent of the First Amendment to claim the right to control everyone's online information.
Right before the Fourth of July, Verizon filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that expressed this intent in no uncertain terms. The brief was part of the telecom company’s bid to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules, which prohibit carriers from blocking or discriminating against Internet users’ content.
In the brief, Verizon argues that the First Amendment gives the company the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief.
The First Amendment “protects those transmitting the speech of others, and those who ‘exercise editorial discretion’ in selecting which speech to transmit and how to transmit it,” the company’s attorneys wrote. “In performing these functions, broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.’ Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.”
By “content” Verizon means all digital communications that cross its wires, from photographs of your cousin’s backyard barbeque to YouTube videos of human rights violations in Syria.
Verizon filed its brief quietly just before the July Fourth holiday, but it has caught the attention of the Internet freedom community like a skunk under the back porch.
This is not the first time Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have suggested that they have a First Amendment right to stifle speech online. AT&T argued in 2010 that its role is similar to that of an editor who selects content and speaks — and that it is not merely a conduit for the communications of others.
This defense of corporate censorship is no idle threat but a pretext for a full-scale takeover of the Internet — a move that first requires killing off any consumer protections that stand in the way.
We live in a time when growing numbers of people watch television programs, listen to music, create videos and share photographs via Internet connections provided by private entities.
A 2011 report from European Digital Rights states that ISPs and other technology companies are fast becoming the information cops of the world. The report paints a picture of an emerging “censorship ecosystem” fueled by private entities that often work hand in glove with governments.
This collusion serves both corporate and political interests. ISPs are seeking new authority to interfere with user traffic, including limiting access to the content of competitors like Netflix or shutting down the accounts of users they charge with sharing too much media. Governments are demanding that access providers help them filter and police the Internet — and that they do so under a veil of secrecy.
The most dangerous threats to free speech today lie at this intersection between corporate and political power. While businesses might do many things better than governments, our government is at least by definition directly accountable to the American people. So when Verizon claims the right to decide who gets free speech on the Internet, it’s making this claim as a benevolent despot, not as a representative democracy.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution could not have foreseen a time in which technology allowed more than a billion people to communicate via mobile phones connected to the World Wide Web. Nor could they have envisioned a world in which companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast wield more authority over our free speech than a British monarch.
And yet the First Amendment has survived to this day in defense of democracy’s most consequential right. People on both the left and right value freedom of speech. Just days after Verizon filed its brief, a diverse coalition of more than 1,000 groups and Internet dignitaries joined together behind a Declaration of Internet Freedom that establishes freedom of expression as its first principle.
But popular consensus behind free speech on the Internet is running headlong into media giants like Verizon that want to suppress open Internet culture.
Any claim that the First Amendment protects corporations — and not people — is absurd. And it shows just how far some companies are willing to go to control 21st century communications.