Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai delivered a speech on his plan to undo Obama-era “net neutrality” regulations, which the commission is set to vote on later this month.
In the speech, Pai sharply called out social media platforms for virtue signaling their support of a “free and open internet” while simultaneously ramping up content filtering and censorship.
Regardless of where you come down on net neutrality, Pai is making an important point about how we approach regulation of the internet and the norms surrounding it.
You don’t have to look far to see how the rhetoric around net neutrality has, sometimes dangerously, lost touch with reality. The intensity of this discussion has been driven by celebrities, internet companies, and activist groups who want to raise the stakes and rally their side.
While there’s nothing wrong with this strategy in theory—reasonable people can have different perspectives on internet regulation and have a right to express their views—esoteric regulatory arcana and extreme populist sentiment are often a bad combination.
In this instance, inflamed rhetoric has led to political polarization, sidelining of the facts, and racist attacks on Pai, effectively poisoning the well for productive compromise and debate on the merits of the issue.
Getting to Pai’s point, this amped-up rhetoric has also led to some strange hypocrisies from the internet companies and activists pushing for Title II regulation. In Pai’s remarks, he calls them to task:
[D]espite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.
Earlier this year, a range of social media companies that included Reddit and Twitter organized a “Day of Action” campaign to drive comments to the Federal Communications Commission over net neutrality.
Below the heading, “Why is net neutrality important?” the organizers said the internet should be an open platform for “free expression, and exchange of ideas.” Another campaign site, organized by the Internet Association, lists the power to block or restrict content as a top reason to support the current rules.
Twitter once described itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” In a blog post on why it supports net neutrality, the social network explains that “free expression is part of our company DNA.”
Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg explained why his company supports net neutrality in a post on Facebook, saying that an open internet means service providers shouldn’t be able to “block you from seeing certain content.“
Activist groups have also emphasized the concern that, without net neutrality, companies would be free to filter content and stop online movements like Black Lives Matter.
Unfortunately, as Pai highlights, the record of these companies hasn’t held up to their rhetoric on free expression. Groups like Techdirt and EFF (who also support net neutrality), have also fiercely criticized the trend of platforms taking a bigger role in policing speech.
For example, just this year Twitter suspended libertarian-leaning law professor and pundit Glenn Reynolds, suspended legal blogger and free speech advocate Ken White (“Popehat”), shut down a Republican congresswoman’s campaign ad about abortion, and suspended actress Rose McGowan for tweeting about Harvey Weinstein.
Reddit’s CEO admitted he personally edited other users’ comments on a pro-Trump subreddit.
More recently, in the wake of Charlottesville, Reddit moved to implement stricter moderation policies targeted at the alt-right. Last year, Facebook’s trending stories section was outed for allegedly suppressing conservative viewpoints, raising the eyebrows of conservative lawmakers like Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
This year, Facebook temporarily banned Republican Senate candidate Austin Petersen from the network for featuring a rifle giveaway. Conservative pundit Lauren Southern was suspended from Facebook for comments on President Donald Trump’s immigration policy. There are plenty of other examples.
These companies are generally within their legal rights to filter or block content as they see fit. Additionally, some incidents may be the result of genuine human error. It should also go without saying that filtering or censoring illegal activity—such as terrorism or copyright infringement—is a separate issue.
Nonetheless, when you look into the way these companies moderate speech as a whole, it reflects quite poorly on how they uphold the values they espouse in their activism.
The problem is deeper than just social media. Matthew Prince is CEO of Cloudflare, a company that participated in the Day of Action in July. The following month, Prince was in the spotlight for terminating the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer for being “—holes.” In the process, he opened a debate on the role of infrastructure companies in content regulation.
Not long after, in an effort to make a point about net neutrality, Prince suggested he could block Pai’s own ability to access the internet.
In a blog post from August, Prince made the case for why we need a better framework for content regulation at different layers of the internet, which are traditionally (and rightly) held to different standards. In this, he emphasized the need for due process and more transparent, consistent enforcement.
Perhaps these principles would be good for Prince, as well as other companies, to adopt—particularly if norms and practices continue to shift, as they seem to be doing post-Charlottesville.
At minimum, the proliferation of these kinds of enforcement efforts by platforms and service providers—such as reactionary community standards updates following the news cycle, or a CEO waking up and deciding that someone is an “—hole”—suggest activists might want to take a broader view of how internet policy interfaces with free expression (particularly for those who hold themselves out as neutral platforms or conduits).
Regardless of what you think of net neutrality or its application in the Open Internet Order, you should listen to the point Pai is making about the bigger picture.
This doesn’t mean we should embrace the overblown panic over social media, big tech, and the calls for expansive new regulations. But it does suggest that we should be more skeptical of virtue-signaling by companies that may just be looking out for their business interests, and the doublethink of the many activists who seem to be looking the other way.