Free Speech Now! Kinda…

Free speech is taking a beating on the Internet and ISPs have nothing to do with it. This is peculiar because activists have long insisted that ISPs are the greatest – and perhaps only – threat to the free flow of information across the Internet.

Many of the arguments for harsh net neutrality regulations are appeals to this free speech sentiment. Sen. Al Franken says: “Net neutrality may sound like a technical issue, but it’s the key to preserving the internet as we know it — and it’s the most important First Amendment issue of our time.”

EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry says: “An Attack on Net Neutrality Is an Attack on Free Speech” and Center for Media Justice activist Malkia Cyril proclaims: “net neutrality is the free speech principle on the internet”

Inconvenient Truths

These declarations seem to imply that Internet speech is pretty much unconstrained as long as the regulated part of the Internet industry abides by the general principles of net neutrality. Free Press offers the example of Telus blocking access to two web sites owned by striking employees as an example of Internet censorship violating free speech.

But the Telus example has some holes because the sites blocked by Telus doxxed non-striking employees and sought to harass and intimidate them. The relevant pages were also banned from the Internet by the Canadian courts.

It’s also true that the nazis and white supremacists who are having a hard time finding stable homes on the Internet are disgusting. Their messages of hate probably have more to do with getting attention than with trying to achieve any real change in law and culture. And our traditional free speech advocates – such as the ACLU – have long treated then as pet clients.

But American nazis and klansmen are insignificant gnats that are best ign0red; given their desperate need for attention, refusing to react is probably the best punishment.

Drawing a Line

Until Internet platforms such as Google, Facebook, Cloudflare, and Dreamhost acknowledged the existence of the nazis, the line between permissible and impermissible speech on the Internet didn’t exist. When asked to ban copyright pirates from DNS, search, and advertising, Internet hipsters rebelled. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian called SOPA “the equivalent of being angry and trying to take action against Ford just because a Mustang was used in a bank robbery.” EFF declared: “[SOPA] must be stopped if we want to protect free speech and innovation on the web.”

SOPA actually addressed sites 100% dedicated to selling copyrighted material without a license, but free speech advocates saw something much more nefarious in the bill regardless. But we’re now at a point where possibly legal speech by the racists is subject to censorship but copyright criminals are pretty much free to do business.

This is peculiar but consistent with hipster free speech values. Hate speech is trolling, and the Internet hates trolls. The Internet is tolerant, but tolerating intolerance is self-destructive. So censoring racist shrieking is just what we expect the Internet to do. In fact, terms of service typically single out this kind of behavior for censorship.

Facebook is a good example: “You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Even though this provision is unevenly enforced, it has led to a number of takedowns, bans, and temporary account suspensions.

Where is the New Line?

Now that we know that we have a line, we need to have a conversation about where it should be. Google doesn’t ban hate speech, but it did refuse to continue serving racists. Cloudflare imposes conditions related to “abuse” but doesn’t provide any details. Apparently, the new line circumscribes content that offends the sensibilities of decent people.

It’s appropriate for these firms to do what they’ve done. The smaller players, such as DreamHost, really had no choice because they had become targets of DDoS attacks that prevented them from providing services to their respectable clientele. But Google, Facebook, and Cloudflare had no such vulnerability.

The time has come for the Internet to take copyright theft seriously. This can be relatively painless now that we realize that there’s a line between permissible and impermissible speech. Instead of inflicting poverty on artists by stealing their copyrights, the Internet industry can help them thrive by refusing to aid and abet piracy.

We’ve been treating our favorite artists as if they’re better than tedious house guests, and that’s just not the way decent people behave. It’s also a good time to drop the pretense that net neutrality regulations on ISPs have something to do with free speech. They don’t, and if they did it would make no sense to strangle ISPs while turning a blind eye to the Internet’s real gatekeepers.

The Way Ahead

If we really believe that it’s sound public policy to impose speech neutrality on ISPs, it has to also be sound to impose the same rules on platforms as well. For all practical purposes, Google, Facebook, and Cloudflare are every bit as involved in the transmission of speech as networks are.

And the platforms serve many times more users than individual networks do: Google parent Alphabet has no fewer than seven lines of business with more than a billion users apiece.  Figures like that turn networks green with envy when facing such numbers. The biggest ISPs have less than 30 million customers apiece.

Not only are platforms bigger than ISPs, they’re also blatantly discriminatory. Website operators shop for deals on acceleration for a price – paid prioritization – everyday from a handful of firms. Companies like Akamai, Amazon, Level 3, and Limelight Networks speed up websites without breaking the Internet.

If they can do this why can’t ISPs offer the same service? It’s completely arbitrary to regulate services according to the identity of the firm that supplies them. So let’s get serious about discrimination by regulating networks and platforms that function like virtual networks the same way.

If speech isn’t free from end to end, it’s not really free at all.