Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their  free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel of rapacious companies that had zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.


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