Report

Is Filtering Censorship? The Second Free Speech Tradition

Tim Wu

INTRODUCTION

When Google merged with telecommunications giant AT&T there was, of course, some opposition.  Some said, rather heatedly, that an information monopolist of a kind never seen before was in the works.  But given the state of the industry after the crash, and the shocking bankruptcy of Apple, there were few who would deny that some kind of merger was necessary.  Necessary, that is, not just to save jobs but to save the communications infrastructure that millions of Americans had come to depend on. After it went through, contrary to some of the dire warnings that came out, everything was much the same.   Google was still Google, the telephone company was still AT&T, and after a while, much of the hubbub died down.

It was a few years later that the rumors began, mostly leaks from former employees, suggesting that GT&T (now AT&T again) was up to something.  Some said the firm was fixing its search results and taking other steps to ensure that Google itself would never be displaced from its throne.   Of course, while it made for some good headlines, no one paid too much attention.  The fact is that there are always conspiracy theorists and disgruntled employees out there, no matter what the company. When GT&T went ahead and acquired The New York Times as part of its public campaign to save the media, most people cheered.  Yes, there was some of typical outcry from usual sources, but then again, Comcast had been running NBC for years without incident.

Looking back, I suppose it was really only after the Presidential election that you might say that things came to a head.  In a way, it might have been obvious that Governor Tilden, who’d pledged to aggressively enforce the antitrust laws, wasn’t going to be GT&T’s favorite candidate.   That’s fine, and of course corporations have the right, just like any other person, to support or oppose a politician they don’t like.  But what only came out much later was the full extent of the company’s campaign against Tilden.  It turned out that every part of the information empire–from the news site to the media properties to the search engines, the mobile video, and the access to emails — all of it was mobilized to ensure Tilden’s defeat.  It retrospect, it was foolish for Tilden’s campaign to rely on GT&T phones, Gmail and apps so heavily. Then again, doesn’t everyone?  

Everyone knows the effect that the press can have on elections.  We’ve sort of come to expect that newspapers will take one side or another.   But no one quite understood or realized how important controlling the very information channels themselves would be–from mobile phones all the way through search and video.

Well, Hayes is President, and nothing is going to change that.  But the whole incident has begun to make people wonder.  Should we be worried about the influence of the information channel over politics?  Are Google or AT&T possibly subject to the First Amendment?   Are they common carriers, and if so, what does that mean for speech?

Mention “speech” in America, and most people with legal training or an interest in the Constitution think immediately of the First Amendment and its champion, the United States Supreme Court.  The great story of free speech in America is the pamphleteer peddling an unpopular cause, defended by courts against arrest and the burning of his materials.  That is the central narrative taught in law schools, based loosely on Justice Holmes’ dissenting opinions[1] and Harvard Law Professor Zechariah Chafee’s 1919 seminal paper, Freedom of Speech in Wartime.  Chafee wrote:

The true meaning of freedom of speech seems to be this.  One of the most important purposes of society and government is the discovery and spread of truth on subjects of general concern.  This is possible only through absolutely unlimited discussion. . . Nevertheless, there are other purposes of government. . .  Unlimited discussion sometimes interferes with these purposes, which must then be balanced against freedom of speech…. The First Amendment gives binding force to this principle of political wisdom.[2]

This is the first free speech tradition, the centerpiece of how free speech has been understood in America.[3]  Yet while not irrelevant, it has become of secondary importance for many of the free speech questions of our times.   Instead, a second free speech tradition, dating from 1910 or the 1940s, much less well known, and barely taught in school, has slowly grown in importance.

The second tradition is different.  It cares about the decisions made by concentrated, private intermediaries who control or carry speech.  It is a tradition where the main governmental agent is not the Supreme Court but the Interstate Commerce or Federal Communications Commission.  And in the second tradition the censors, as it were, are not government officials but private intermediaries, who are often lacking a censorial instinct of their own, but nonetheless vulnerable to censorial pressures from others.  Above all, it is a speech tradition linked to the technology of mass communications.

In its heyday from the 1930s through the 1960s the second tradition was anchored in the common carriage rules applied to the telephone company and also, at times, to radio, and later on, in the cajoling of and the public interest duties imposed on broadcasters.   In its mid-century incarnation, the regime was a reaction to the concentration at every layer of the communications industry.   But today, the industry is different, and in our times, the concerns have changed.  As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in 2008, in the New York Times Magazine:

At the moment, the person with the most control over free expression around the globe is not a judge, a president, or a monarch. She is Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel at Google. Wong is known within Google as “The Decider,” because she alone decides which blogs, videos, articles and other content is posted on YouTube, and which are removed in response to requests from governments and users ranging from the Thai King and the Pakistani prime minister to Hollywood corporations.[4]Captured in this paragraph is an essential feature of the speech architecture of our times and how it affects the speech environment.   We live in an age where an enormous number of speakers, a “long tail” in popular lingo, are layered on top of a small number of very large speech intermediaries.[5]  Consequently, understanding free speech in America has become a matter of understanding the behavior of intermediaries, whether motivated by their own scruples, law, or public pressure.

The point of this essay is to suggest that anyone who wants to understand free speech in America in the 21st Century needs to understand the second tradition as deeply, if not more so, as the first.  That means understanding that the doctrines of common carriage and network neutrality are perhaps the most important speech-related laws of our times. As we shall see, it is a messier tradition and much less familiar, but no less important.




[1]

E.g., Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting).

[2]

Zechariah Chafee, Freedom of Speech in Wartime, 32 Harv. L. Rev. 932, 956-57 (1919).

[3]

Scholars will know that describing Chafee’s Free speech During Wartime as representative of the First Free speech tradition is controversial, for Chafee is considered by some to have abrogated an older First Amendment tradition and constructed his own twentieth century “tradition.”  See Mark Graber, Transforming Free speech: The Ambiguous Legacy of Civil Libertarianism (1991).   It would probably be more accurate to speak of three, or four or five major speech traditions in the United States, and a few minor ones thrown in as well.

[4]

See Jeffrey Rosen, Google’s Gatekeepers, N. Y. Times Mag., Nov. 28, 2008, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/magazine/30google-t.html.

[5]

“For every diverse Long Tail there’s a ‘Big Dog’: a boring standardized industry that isn’t sexy like Apple…but that delivers all that niche content you’re hungry for.” Tim Wu, The Wrong Tail, Slate, July 21, 2006, http://www.slate.com/id/2146225/.

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