Once upon a time, social conservatives used to be major allies on both limiting media consolidation and on net neutrality. Why? Because they recognized that if you had a handful of corporate gatekeepers controlling access to the marketplace of ideas, they could easily get shut out. Market forces being market forces, companies pressured to censor unpopular or controversial speech and views will do so. Add to that the belief on the part of conservatives that they face ideological bias from the “mainstream media” or “Silicon Valley,” and you had many conservatives back in the day who stood shoulder to shoulder with us back when I was at Media Access Project to oppose Powell’s efforts to relax media ownership rules in 2003 and who opposed Congress’ first attempt to gut net neutrality — the COPE Act — in 2006.
Then came the 2008 election and the Tea Party blowback of 2009-10. Net neutrality became a red team/blue team issue and even social conservatives who had previously supported net neutrality went silent on the issue.
Ironically, now that Republicans dominate all branches of government, conservatives are once again discovering the value of common carriage and government prohibition on any sort of interference with conduits of speech — at least with regard to social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Why? As conservatives have once again discovered, if companies retain the right to exert editorial control based on content, they will get pressured by the market and government to use that editorial discretion to censor “harmful” speech. That, and the perception that Silicon Valley has a distinct liberal bias, have prompted some in the conservative movement to rediscover the idea that common carrier regulations actually protect and promote free speech and are not a regulation of speech. Because without access to the public square — whether the real life public square or its digital equivalent — your freedom of speech is simply a freedom to whisper to yourself.
I am happy to agree that the time has come to consider whether social media platforms — and other essential elements of communications such as operating systems, DNS registration, or content hosting — should have non-discrimination obligations consistent with our traditional concepts of common carriage. I believe this would also have the salutary effect of protecting companies from liability or social pressure by taking away their discretion. After all, we don’t see anyone demanding that the major mobile providers stop providing cell phones to white supremacists or that broadband providers block subscribers from accessing websites like Daily Stormer. The public accepts that these companies have no choice, because they are common carriers and must serve everyone equally as a matter of law. By contrast, we have seen successful campaigns to pressure DNS registrars to refuse to host the Daily Stormer domain name, Cloudflare, which itself decided to stop servicing Daily Stormer after Daily Stormer claimed that Cloudflare’s decision not to suspend service constituted an endorsement, posted this excellent blog post on why their actions should make people very uncomfortable.
So this should be a great time to reforge the Left/Right alliance on media diversity and government regulation to prevent private censorship, right? I hope so. Unfortunately, this very important conversation keeps getting muddled for two reasons.
1) People keep confusing the concept of “common carriage” with the concept of “public utility.” The differences actually matter a lot, despite 15 years of anti-net neutrality advocates muddling the two.
2) The most active proponents of using government regulation to prevent private censorship on the conservative side are pretty much treating common carrier regulation as a form of revenge porn rather than as a serious public policy debate. “Oh, you don’t want me? You want to break up with me? Well I’ll show you! I’ll make it so you have to carry me!” Indeed, since 2006, when Google (to my considerable annoyance) became the poster child for net neutrality for opponents and a trade press obsessed with treating every policy debate as an industry food fight, the debate about common carrier obligations or non-discrimination obligations or even privacy has always triggered a “but what about edge providers? Waaaaahhhhh!! Regulate them! Regulate them!”
Now I should make it very clear that I can find plenty of progressives who have conceived passionate hatreds for “Silicon Valley” platforms for various reasons, and who also get confused on the concept of “public utility.” Additionally, I can find at least some conservative free market types who understand why we need to regulate things like Internet access differently than hosting services or social media. But it’s conservatives lusting to regulate “Silicon Valley” that have been getting the headlines, and are driving the discussion among Republicans in Congress. Plus I’m getting tired of being asked the same stupid questions by the same folks on Twitter. So I’ll call out the conservatives howling for Silicon Valley blood by name.
Anyway, because whether and how to regulate various parts of the Internet supply chain (or, if you prefer, ecosystem), I will try to explain below why common carriage obligations, such as network neutrality, are different from public utility regulation (even though most utility providers are common carriers), which is different from natural monopoly regulated rate of return/tariffing/price regulation. I will briefly explore some of the arguments in favor of applying some sort of public forum doctrine or common carrier obligation to social media platforms, and — because this invariably comes up in telecom space — why platform or other infrastructure providers are not and should not be covered by Title II or the FCC, even if we agree they should have some sort of public forum or even public utility obligations.
More below . . .