NetChoice, Net Neutrality, and the Future of the First Amendment Online

Ben Sperry —  1 June 2022 — Leave a comment

In an expected decision (but with a somewhat unexpected coalition), the U.S. Supreme Court has moved 5 to 4 to vacate an order issued early last month by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which stayed an earlier December 2021 order from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas enjoining Texas’ attorney general from enforcing the state’s recently enacted social-media law, H.B. 20. The law would bar social-media platforms with more than 50 million active users from engaging in “censorship” based on political viewpoint. 

The shadow-docket order serves to grant the preliminary injunction sought by NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association to block the law—which they argue is facially unconstitutional—from taking effect. The trade groups also are challenging a similar Florida law, which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled was “substantially likely” to violate the First Amendment. Both state laws will thus be stayed while challenges on the merits proceed. 

But the element of the Supreme Court’s order drawing the most initial interest is the “strange bedfellows” breakdown that produced it. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett and liberals Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in moving to vacate the 5th Circuit’s stay. Meanwhile, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent that was joined by fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, and liberal Justice Elena Kagan also dissented without offering a written justification.

A glance at the recent history, however, reveals why it should not be all that surprising that the justices would not come down along predictable partisan lines. Indeed, when it comes to content moderation and the question of whether to designate platforms as “common carriers,” the one undeniably predictable outcome is that both liberals and conservatives have been remarkably inconsistent.

Both Sides Flip Flop on Common Carriage

Ever since Justice Thomas used his concurrence in 2021’s Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute to lay out a blueprint for how states could regulate social-media companies as common carriers, states led by conservatives have been working to pass bills to restrict the ability of social media companies to “censor.” 

Forcing common carriage on the Internet was, not long ago, something conservatives opposed. It was progressives who called net neutrality the “21st Century First Amendment.” The actual First Amendment, however, protects the rights of both Internet service providers (ISPs) and social-media companies to decide the rules of the road on their own platforms.

Back in the heady days of 2014, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was still planning its next moves on net neutrality after losing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit the first time around, Geoffrey Manne and I at the International Center for Law & Economics teamed with Berin Szoka and Tom Struble of TechFreedom to write a piece for the First Amendment Law Review arguing that there was no exception that would render broadband ISPs “state actors” subject to the First Amendment. Further, we argued that the right to editorial discretion meant that net-neutrality regulations would be subject to (and likely fail) First Amendment scrutiny under Tornillo or Turner.

After the FCC moved to reclassify broadband as a Title II common carrier in 2015, then-Judge Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit dissented from the denial of en banc review, in part on First Amendment grounds. He argued that “the First Amendment bars the Government from restricting the editorial discretion of Internet service providers, absent a showing that an Internet service provider possesses market power in a relevant geographic market.” In fact, Kavanaugh went so far as to link the interests of ISPs and Big Tech (and even traditional media), stating:

If market power need not be shown, the Government could regulate the editorial decisions of Facebook and Google, of MSNBC and Fox, of NYTimes.com and WSJ.com, of YouTube and Twitter. Can the Government really force Facebook and Google and all of those other entities to operate as common carriers? Can the Government really impose forced-carriage or equal-access obligations on YouTube and Twitter? If the Government’s theory in this case were accepted, then the answers would be yes. After all, if the Government could force Internet service providers to carry unwanted content even absent a showing of market power, then it could do the same to all those other entities as well. There is no principled distinction between this case and those hypothetical cases.

This was not a controversial view among free-market, right-of-center types at the time.

An interesting shift started to occur during the presidency of Donald Trump, however, as tensions between social-media companies and many on the right came to a head. Instead of seeing these companies as private actors with strong First Amendment rights, some conservatives began looking either for ways to apply the First Amendment to them directly as “state actors” or to craft regulations that would essentially make social-media companies into common carriers with regard to speech.

But Kavanaugh’s opinion in USTelecom remains the best way forward to understand how the First Amendment applies online today, whether regarding net neutrality or social-media regulation. Given Justice Alito’s view, expressed in his dissent, that it “is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies,” it is a fair bet that laws like those passed by Texas and Florida will get a hearing before the Court in the not-distant future. If Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion has sway among the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court, or is able to peel off justices from the liberal bloc, the Texas law and others like it (as well as net-neutrality regulations) will be struck down as First Amendment violations.

Kavanaugh’s USTelecom Dissent

In then-Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent, he highlighted two reasons he believed the FCC’s reclassification of broadband as Title II was unlawful. The first was that the reclassification decision was a “major question” that required clear authority delegated by Congress. The second, more important point was that the FCC’s reclassification decision was subject to the Turner standard. Under that standard, since the FCC did not engage—at the very least—in a market-power analysis, the rules could not stand, as they amounted to mandated speech.

The interesting part of this opinion is that it tracks very closely to the analysis of common-carriage requirements for social-media companies. Kavanaugh’s opinion offered important insights into:

  1. the applicability of the First Amendment right to editorial discretion to common carriers;
  2. the “use it or lose it” nature of this right;
  3. whether Turner’s protections depended on scarcity; and 
  4. what would be required to satisfy Turner scrutiny.

Common Carriage and First Amendment Protection

Kavanaugh found unequivocally that common carriers, such as ISPs classified under Title II, were subject to First Amendment protection under the Turner decisions:

The Court’s ultimate conclusion on that threshold First Amendment point was not obvious beforehand. One could have imagined the Court saying that cable operators merely operate the transmission pipes and are not traditional editors. One could have imagined the Court comparing cable operators to electricity providers, trucking companies, and railroads – all entities subject to traditional economic regulation. But that was not the analytical path charted by the Turner Broadcasting Court. Instead, the Court analogized the cable operators to the publishers, pamphleteers, and bookstore owners traditionally protected by the First Amendment. As Turner Broadcasting concluded, the First Amendment’s basic principles “do not vary when a new and different medium for communication appears” – although there of course can be some differences in how the ultimate First Amendment analysis plays out depending on the nature of (and competition in) a particular communications market. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 786, 790 (2011) (internal quotation mark omitted).

Here, of course, we deal with Internet service providers, not cable television operators. But Internet service providers and cable operators perform the same kinds of functions in their respective networks. Just like cable operators, Internet service providers deliver content to consumers. Internet service providers may not necessarily generate much content of their own, but they may decide what content they will transmit, just as cable operators decide what content they will transmit. Deciding whether and how to transmit ESPN and deciding whether and how to transmit ESPN.com are not meaningfully different for First Amendment purposes.

Indeed, some of the same entities that provide cable television service – colloquially known as cable companies – provide Internet access over the very same wires. If those entities receive First Amendment protection when they transmit television stations and networks, they likewise receive First Amendment protection when they transmit Internet content. It would be entirely illogical to conclude otherwise. In short, Internet service providers enjoy First Amendment protection of their rights to speak and exercise editorial discretion, just as cable operators do.

‘Use It or Lose It’ Right to Editorial Discretion

Kavanaugh questioned whether the First Amendment right to editorial discretion depends, to some degree, on how much the entity used the right. Ultimately, he rejected the idea forwarded by the FCC that, since ISPs don’t restrict access to any sites, they were essentially holding themselves out to be common carriers:

I find that argument mystifying. The FCC’s “use it or lose it” theory of First Amendment rights finds no support in the Constitution or precedent. The FCC’s theory is circular, in essence saying: “They have no First Amendment rights because they have not been regularly exercising any First Amendment rights and therefore they have no First Amendment rights.” It may be true that some, many, or even most Internet service providers have chosen not to exercise much editorial discretion, and instead have decided to allow most or all Internet content to be transmitted on an equal basis. But that “carry all comers” decision itself is an exercise of editorial discretion. Moreover, the fact that the Internet service providers have not been aggressively exercising their editorial discretion does not mean that they have no right to exercise their editorial discretion. That would be akin to arguing that people lose the right to vote if they sit out a few elections. Or citizens lose the right to protest if they have not protested before. Or a bookstore loses the right to display its favored books if it has not done so recently. That is not how constitutional rights work. The FCC’s “use it or lose it” theory is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.

Employing a similar logic, Kavanaugh also rejected the notion that net-neutrality rules were essentially voluntary, given that ISPs held themselves out as carrying all content.

Relatedly, the FCC claims that, under the net neutrality rule, an Internet service provider supposedly may opt out of the rule by choosing to carry only some Internet content. But even under the FCC’s description of the rule, an Internet service provider that chooses to carry most or all content still is not allowed to favor some content over other content when it comes to price, speed, and availability. That half-baked regulatory approach is just as foreign to the First Amendment. If a bookstore (or Amazon) decides to carry all books, may the Government then force the bookstore (or Amazon) to feature and promote all books in the same manner? If a newsstand carries all newspapers, may the Government force the newsstand to display all newspapers in the same way? May the Government force the newsstand to price them all equally? Of course not. There is no such theory of the First Amendment. Here, either Internet service providers have a right to exercise editorial discretion, or they do not. If they have a right to exercise editorial discretion, the choice of whether and how to exercise that editorial discretion is up to them, not up to the Government.

Think about what the FCC is saying: Under the rule, you supposedly can exercise your editorial discretion to refuse to carry some Internet content. But if you choose to carry most or all Internet content, you cannot exercise your editorial discretion to favor some content over other content. What First Amendment case or principle supports that theory? Crickets.

In a footnote, Kavanugh continued to lambast the theory of “voluntary regulation” forwarded by the concurrence, stating:

The concurrence in the denial of rehearing en banc seems to suggest that the net neutrality rule is voluntary. According to the concurrence, Internet service providers may comply with the net neutrality rule if they want to comply, but can choose not to comply if they do not want to comply. To the concurring judges, net neutrality merely means “if you say it, do it.”…. If that description were really true, the net neutrality rule would be a simple prohibition against false advertising. But that does not appear to be an accurate description of the rule… It would be strange indeed if all of the controversy were over a “rule” that is in fact entirely voluntary and merely proscribes false advertising. In any event, I tend to doubt that Internet service providers can now simply say that they will choose not to comply with any aspects of the net neutrality rule and be done with it. But if that is what the concurrence means to say, that would of course avoid any First Amendment problem: To state the obvious, a supposed “rule” that actually imposes no mandates or prohibitions and need not be followed would not raise a First Amendment issue.

Scarcity and Capacity to Carry Content

The FCC had also argued that there was a difference between ISPs and the cable companies in Turner in that ISPs did not face decisions about scarcity in content carriage. But Kavanaugh rejected this theory as inconsistent with the First Amendment’s right not to be compelled to carry a message or speech.

That argument, too, makes little sense as a matter of basic First Amendment law. First Amendment protection does not go away simply because you have a large communications platform. A large bookstore has the same right to exercise editorial discretion as a small bookstore. Suppose Amazon has capacity to sell every book currently in publication and therefore does not face the scarcity of space that a bookstore does. Could the Government therefore force Amazon to sell, feature, and promote every book on an equal basis, and prohibit Amazon from promoting or recommending particular books or authors? Of course not. And there is no reason for a different result here. Put simply, the Internet’s technological architecture may mean that Internet service providers can provide unlimited content; it does not mean that they must.

Keep in mind, moreover, why that is so. The First Amendment affords editors and speakers the right not to speak and not to carry or favor unwanted speech of others, at least absent sufficient governmental justification for infringing on that right… That foundational principle packs at least as much punch when you have room on your platform to carry a lot of speakers as it does when you have room on your platform to carry only a few speakers.

Turner Scrutiny and Bottleneck Market Power

Finally, Kavanaugh applied Turner scrutiny and found that, at the very least, it requires a finding of “bottleneck market power” that would allow ISPs to harm consumers. 

At the time of the Turner Broadcasting decisions, cable operators exercised monopoly power in the local cable television markets. That monopoly power afforded cable operators the ability to unfairly disadvantage certain broadcast stations and networks. In the absence of a competitive market, a broadcast station had few places to turn when a cable operator declined to carry it. Without Government intervention, cable operators could have disfavored certain broadcasters and indeed forced some broadcasters out of the market altogether. That would diminish the content available to consumers. The Supreme Court concluded that the cable operators’ market-distorting monopoly power justified Government intervention. Because of the cable operators’ monopoly power, the Court ultimately upheld the must-carry statute…

The problem for the FCC in this case is that here, unlike in Turner Broadcasting, the FCC has not shown that Internet service providers possess market power in a relevant geographic market… 

Rather than addressing any problem of market power, the net neutrality rule instead compels private Internet service providers to supply an open platform for all would-be Internet speakers, and thereby diversify and increase the number of voices available on the Internet. The rule forcibly reduces the relative voices of some Internet service and content providers and enhances the relative voices of other Internet content providers.

But except in rare circumstances, the First Amendment does not allow the Government to regulate the content choices of private editors just so that the Government may enhance certain voices and alter the content available to the citizenry… Turner Broadcasting did not allow the Government to satisfy intermediate scrutiny merely by asserting an interest in diversifying or increasing the number of speakers available on cable systems. After all, if that interest sufficed to uphold must-carry regulation without a showing of market power, the Turner Broadcasting litigation would have unfolded much differently. The Supreme Court would have had little or no need to determine whether the cable operators had market power. But the Supreme Court emphasized and relied on the Government’s market power showing when the Court upheld the must-carry requirements… To be sure, the interests in diversifying and increasing content are important governmental interests in the abstract, according to the Supreme Court But absent some market dysfunction, Government regulation of the content carriage decisions of communications service providers is not essential to furthering those interests, as is required to satisfy intermediate scrutiny.

In other words, without a finding of bottleneck market power, there would be no basis for satisfying the government interest prong of Turner.

Applying Kavanaugh’s Dissent to NetChoice v. Paxton

Interestingly, each of these main points arises in the debate over regulating social-media companies as common carriers. Texas’ H.B. 20 attempts to do exactly that, which is at the heart of the litigation in NetChoice v. Paxton.

Common Carriage and First Amendment Protection

To the first point, Texas attempts to claim in its briefs that social-media companies are common carriers subject to lesser First Amendment protection: “Assuming the platforms’ refusals to serve certain customers implicated First Amendment rights, Texas has properly denominated the platforms common carriers. Imposing common-carriage requirements on a business does not offend the First Amendment.”

But much like the cable operators before them in Turner, social-media companies are not simply carriers of persons or things like the classic examples of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. As TechFreedom put it in its brief: “As its name suggests… ‘common carriage’ is about offering, to the public at large  and on indiscriminate terms, to carry generic stuff from point A to point B. Social media websites fulfill none of these elements.”

In a sense, it’s even clearer that social-media companies are not common carriers than it was in the case of ISPs, because social-media platforms have always had terms of service that limit what can be said and that even allow the platforms to remove users for violations. All social-media platforms curate content for users in ways that ISPs normally do not.

‘Use It or Lose It’ Right to Editorial Discretion

Just as the FCC did in the Title II context, Texas also presses the idea that social-media companies gave up their right to editorial discretion by disclaiming the choice to exercise it, stating: “While the platforms compare their business policies to classic examples of First Amendment speech, such as a newspaper’s decision to include an article in its pages, the platforms have disclaimed any such status over many years and in countless cases. This Court should not accept the platforms’ good-for-this-case-only characterization of their businesses.” Pointing primarily to cases where social-media companies have invoked Section 230 immunity as a defense, Texas argues they have essentially lost the right to editorial discretion.

This, again, flies in the face of First Amendment jurisprudence, as Kavanaugh earlier explained. Moreover, the idea that social-media companies have disclaimed editorial discretion due to Section 230 is inconsistent with what that law actually does. Section 230 allows social-media companies to engage in as much or as little content moderation as they so choose by holding the third-party speakers accountable rather than the platform. Social-media companies do not relinquish their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion because they assert an applicable defense under the law. Moreover, social-media companies have long had rules delineating permissible speech, and they enforce those rules actively.

Interestingly, there has also been an analogue to the idea forwarded in USTelecom that the law’s First Amendment burdens are relatively limited. As noted above, then-Judge Kavanaugh rejected the idea forwarded by the concurrence that net-neutrality rules were essentially voluntary. In the case of H.B. 20, the bill’s original sponsor recently argued on Twitter that the Texas law essentially incorporates Section 230 by reference. If this is true, then the rules would be as pointless as the net-neutrality rules would have been, because social-media companies would be free under Section 230(c)(2) to remove “otherwise objectionable” material under the Texas law.

Scarcity and Capacity to Carry Content

In an earlier brief to the 5th Circuit, Texas attempted to differentiate social-media companies from the cable company in Turner by stating there was no necessary conflict between speakers, stating “[HB 20] does not, for example, pit one group of speakers against another.” But this is just a different way of saying that, since social-media companies don’t face scarcity in their technical capacity to carry speech, they can be required to carry all speech. This is inconsistent with the right Kavanaugh identified not to carry a message or speech, which is not subject to an exception that depends on the platform’s capacity to carry more speech.

Turner Scrutiny and Bottleneck Market Power

Finally, Judge Kavanaugh’s application of Turner to ISPs makes clear that a showing of bottleneck market power is necessary before common-carriage regulation may be applied to social-media companies. In fact, Kavanaugh used a comparison to social-media sites and broadcasters as a reductio ad absurdum for the idea that one could regulate ISPs without a showing of market power. As he put it there:

Consider the implications if the law were otherwise. If market power need not be shown, the Government could regulate the editorial decisions of Facebook and Google, of MSNBC and Fox, of NYTimes.com and WSJ.com, of YouTube and Twitter. Can the Government really force Facebook and Google and all of those other entities to operate as common carriers? Can the Government really impose forced-carriage or equal-access obligations on YouTube and Twitter? If the Government’s theory in this case were accepted, then the answers would be yes. After all, if the Government could force Internet service providers to carry unwanted content even absent a showing of market power, then it could do the same to all those other entities as well. There is no principled distinction between this case and those hypothetical cases.

Much like the FCC with its Open Internet Order, Texas did not make a finding of bottleneck market power in H.B. 20. Instead, Texas basically asked for the opportunity to get to discovery to develop the case that social-media platforms have market power, stating that “[b]ecause the District Court sharply limited discovery before issuing its preliminary injunction, the parties have not yet had the opportunity to develop many factual questions, including whether the platforms possess market power.” This simply won’t fly under Turner, which required a legislative finding of bottleneck market power that simply doesn’t exist in H.B. 20. 

Moreover, bottleneck market power means more than simply “market power” in an antitrust sense. As Judge Kavanaugh put it: “Turner Broadcasting seems to require even more from the Government. The Government apparently must also show that the market power would actually be used to disadvantage certain content providers, thereby diminishing the diversity and amount of content available.” Here, that would mean not only that social-media companies have market power, but they want to use it to disadvantage users in a way that makes less diverse content and less total content available.

The economics of multi-sided markets is probably the best explanation for why platforms have moderation rules. They are used to maximize a platform’s value by keeping as many users engaged and on those platforms as possible. In other words, the effect of moderation rules is to increase the amount of user speech by limiting harassing content that could repel users. This is a much better explanation for these rules than “anti-conservative bias” or a desire to censor for censorship’s sake (though there may be room for debate on the margin when it comes to the moderation of misinformation and hate speech).

In fact, social-media companies, unlike the cable operators in Turner, do not have the type of “physical connection between the television set and the cable network” that would grant them “bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over” speech in ways that would allow platforms to “silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.” Cf. Turner, 512 U.S. at 656. Even if they tried, social-media companies simply couldn’t prevent Internet users from accessing content they wish to see online; they inevitably will find such content by going to a different site or app.

Conclusion: The Future of the First Amendment Online

While many on both sides of the partisan aisle appear to see a stark divide between the interests of—and First Amendment protections afforded to—ISPs and social-media companies, Kavanaugh’s opinion in USTelecom shows clearly they are in the same boat. The two rise or fall together. If the government can impose common-carriage requirements on social-media companies in the name of free speech, then they most assuredly can when it comes to ISPs. If the First Amendment protects the editorial discretion of one, then it does for both.

The question then moves to relative market power, and whether the dominant firms in either sector can truly be said to have “bottleneck” market power, which implies the physical control of infrastructure that social-media companies certainly lack.

While it will be interesting to see what the 5th Circuit (and likely, the Supreme Court) ultimately do when reviewing H.B. 20 and similar laws, if now-Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent is any hint, there will be a strong contingent on the Court for finding the First Amendment applies online by protecting the right of private actors (ISPs and social-media companies) to set the rules of the road on their property. As Kavanaugh put it in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck: “[t]he Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment constrains governmental actors and protects private actors.” Competition is the best way to protect consumers’ interests, not prophylactic government regulation.

With the 11th Circuit upholding the stay against Florida’s social-media law and the Supreme Court granting the emergency application to vacate the stay of the injunction in NetChoice v. Paxton, the future of the First Amendment appears to be on strong ground. There is no basis to conclude that simply calling private actors “common carriers” reduces their right to editorial discretion under the First Amendment.

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