Why Phone and Cable Companies Want to Kill the Internet’s Most Democratic Right

Free Press activists rallied for net neutrality on President Obama's motorcade route in Los Angeles. (Photo: Stacie Isabella Turk / flickr / cc)

Tim Karr

Net Neutrality — the principle that protects Internet users’ free speech rights — is censorship.

Did you get that? You did if you happened to be reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages. Former Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell recently wrote a screed claiming that Net Neutrality supporters have taken a turn “toward undermining free speech.”

And McDowell is not alone. Since the FCC announced its plan to make a new ruling regarding the open Internet, Washington has been overrun with phone and cable lobbyists whose sole mission is to convince the agency that real Net Neutrality rules are downright un-American.

Industry-funded think tanks have argued that any enforceable effort to protect the open Internet denies phone and cable companies their First Amendment right “by compelling them to convey content providers’ messages with which they may disagree.”

That these industry voices have mangled the intent of the First Amendment should come as no surprise to anyone witnessing their campaign to undermine the open Internet. (It’s a campaign that includes Comcast and Verizon spending millions on a PR campaign that claims they are for Net Neutrality while spending millions more on lobbyists to push Washington to destroy it.)

The Right to Censor

According to many industry spokespeople, the Net Neutrality protections that millions of Americans are fighting for are an “attempt to turn the Internet into… a federally regulated public utility.” In the view of McDowell and others, Net Neutrality is bad for free speech because it takes away broadband providers’ unalienable right to censor you.

As an FCC decision on the matter grows nearer, the rhetoric from lobbyists will become even more extreme.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Verizon’s lawyers made a similarly distorted argument in 2013 before a federal appeals court, claiming that the First Amendment meant that Internet service providers were the Internet’s editors — free to pick and choose what content gets delivered to customers and what content ends up in a digital dust bin.

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,” Verizon’s attorneys wrote in a brief to the court. “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.”

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