Fight fire with fire
Net neutrality and competing claims of free speech
According to The Hill, a coalition of thirty-five tea party groups has sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, asking the agency not to impose net neutrality rules on the Internet. Roughly speaking, net neutrality prevents Internet service providers from favoring some content over others by speeding up or slowing down traffic to certain sites, or charging users a fee to access web content.
Tea Party opposition to net neutrality stems from a fear of growth in government power. According to the article, they think this power infringes upon free speech:
The free-speech argument holds that, by interfering with how phone and cable companies deliver Internet traffic, the government would be thwarting the free-speech rights of providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
What is most striking about this debate is that the pro-net neutrality side also claims to be protecting free speech. Senator Al Franken, for example, says:
Well, our free speech rights are under assault — not from the government but from corporations seeking to control the flow of information in America. […]“Net neutrality” sounds arcane, but it's fundamental to free speech. The Internet today is an open marketplace. If you have a product, you can sell it. If you have an opinion, you can blog about it. If you have an idea, you can share it with the world.
I’m going to have to side with Senator Franken and company here. I think the type of speech the Tea Partiers claim to be protecting is less worthy of protection than the type Franken is trying to protect.
First, let’s assume that telecommunications companies are “persons” who have rights to free speech, and that their choices about the flow of content over the Internet are a type of speech. These two assumptions are far from certain, but let’s let the
m stand for now.
So there are two instances of speech potentially at risk here, the speech of Internet companies and the speech of Internet users. It seems these two instances of speech are mutually exclusive, since protecting Internet companies involves allowing a potential infringement on the speech of Internet users – you can’t let Comcast slow down my access to ThePublicPhilosopher.com and give me an unfettered right of access at the same time.
So we must choose to sacrifice one. Which one is more worthy of protection?
One reason we think of free speech as a universal right is that it doesn’t actually harm anyone. In the few instances where speech may cause harm, such as a threat or a slander, we don’t think it should be protected. This “harm principle,” is a popular philosophical position we tend to uphold in modern society.
But of course, the infringement of free speech is itself a type of harm. If Internet service providers “speak” by denying the same service to all websites, they are harming persons – specifically, the producers and users of the websites being slighted.
On the other hand, it is not the speech of regular Internet users that is threatening company free speech. Since company speech violates the harm principle, and Internet user speech does not, it is obvious which one is more worthy of government protection.
This is another clear example of government action enabling freedom instead of hampering it, an idea Sam explored last week.
So is there any way out for the Tea Partiers?
I think there is – and it rests with the original fear of government power itself. Some might argue that speech is more of a liberty than a right, something the government cannot infringe upon but has no power to take positive action to enable. This suggests that government infringement is worse than individual infringement of free speech. The harm principle in this case can be rejected as objectionably paternalistic. This and similar positions have extreme consequences, but I suspect they have an important influence on Tea Party positions.
Photo by Flickr user M3Li55 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license