Your freedom of speech belongs to you, not your ISP

by Steve Blum • , ,

Freedom means what?

The most dangerous argument against treating Internet access as a common carrier service was made by a Texas wireless Internet service provider last Friday. In a petition asking a federal appeals court to reconsider its decision to uphold the Federal Communications Commission’s common carrier rules for broadband, Alamo Broadband made the outrageous claim that its First Amendment rights were violated because its right to freedom of speech includes the right to decide what its subscribers can and can’t see on the Internet.

Perversely, Alamo makes its argument by saying the new rules give government the power to decide what you can read, because now Alamo can’t block content it doesn’t want you to see.

Huh? Let’s play that again. An ISP is not a newspaper that prints what it likes and omits what doesn’t. All your ISP, as such, offers is the road you travel to the newsstand, where you decide which newspaper suits your tastes. It has no right to set up a roadblock and shake you down to make sure it agrees with your choice or try to convince you to buy its news instead.

Unless you want to buy that kind of service from them. It’s your freedom of speech at stake, not Alamo’s. There’s nothing in the FCC’s rules that prevent you from buying, say, an add-on service that blocks cute cat videos. The rules say that without your permission Alamo can’t filter out cat videos, whether it’s to reduce bandwidth consumption or because it would prefer you watch dogs instead.

The danger in this argument isn’t posed by a bible-thumping WISP in Texas (or an excruciatingly politically correct one in California, for that matter). The truly frightening prospect is that carried to its logical conclusion, it would put your right to say what you believe or hear what you wish to learn at the bottom of a pile of telecoms companies, each of which would have a superior right to manipulate your information as it travels along their networks.

The judges who first heard this case rejected Alamo’s argument – including the judge who otherwise opposed the majority decision. There’s no legal need or moral justification for the full appeals court or the supreme court to reconsider it.

Here are the six petitions asking the entire D.C. appeals court to rehear challenges to FCC’s broadband common carrier/title II decision:

Alamo Broadband
AT&T
CTIA – mobile industry association
NCTA – cable industry association
USTA – landline industry association
TechFreedom