Free Press is holding its National Conference for Media Reform next week. The conference agenda describes the Internet as “central” to freedom of expression, which is how all mass media technologies have been described since the invention of the printing press ushered in the mass communications era. Despite recognizing that the Internet is a mass media technology, Free Press does not believe the Internet should be accorded the same constitutional protections as other mass media technologies. Like so many others, Free Press has forgotten that the dangers posed by government control of the Internet are similar to those posed by earlier mass media technologies. In a stunning reversal of the concepts embodied in the Bill of Rights, Free Press believes the executive and legislative branches of government are the source of protection for the freedom of expression. In their view, “Internet freedom means net neutrality.”
Tell that to Rodrigo Ferrari, a Chilean blogger who knows firsthand that net neutrality laws don’t protect freedom of expression on the Internet. According to a letter sent by PEN America to United States Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State John Kerry, Ferrari created what was clearly a parody Twitter account that mimicked Andronico Luksic, a wealthy Chilean businessman. PEN America alleges that, at the request of Chilean authorities, the US Departments of State and Justice pressured Twitter to release data identifying Rodrigo as the owner of the parody account and may have provided this information to Chilean authorities without a subpoena or a formal request from the court hearing the case. As a result of US government action, Twitter shut down Ferrari’s parody account, and Chilean authorities are prosecuting Ferrari for the crime of “usurpation of identity” (a form of identity theft), which could result in a prison sentence.
If net neutrality actually meant Internet freedom, Ferrari would not be facing time in prison. Though both Chile and the US have imposed net neutrality regulations, that didn’t stop government authorities in either country from conspiring to deprive Rodrigo Ferrari of his privacy and subject him to criminal prosecution for expressing his views using the Internet. In 2010, Chile became the first country to impose net neutrality regulations, including a regulation that expressly requires that Internet service providers guarantee the privacy of users. At the time, one enthusiastic blogger said, “Chile is China’s antonym in Internet world.” Another asked, “If Chile can, why can’t we?” Later that same year, the Federal Communications Commission followed the Chilean example by imposing net neutrality regulations on Internet service providers in the US, shortly before the European Union rejected net neutrality rules as “unnecessary” and potentially harmful to innovation and investment.
Why didn’t Chilean and US net neutrality regulations “mean” Internet freedom for Ferrari? Because net neutrality regulations don’t restrain government authorities and are not intended to protect consumers in any event. Net neutrality regulations are designed to maximize the access of content providers to consumers and consumer information that can be used to sell advertisements. That is why the net neutrality regulations adopted in Chile and the US apply only to “Internet service providers” (i.e., the companies that provide residential Internet connections). Twitter is not currently considered an “Internet service provider,” which means it can “block” whatever expression it wants.
To be clear, though I don’t support the actions of US authorities as alleged by PEN America, I’m not advocating that net neutrality regulations be extended to Twitter or other content providers. Ironically, however, neither is Free Press or any other net neutrality advocate. They support government restrictions applicable only to network operators despite evidence that Internet content is being “blocked” by content providers for commercial reasons. Net neutrality advocates also oppose First Amendment protection for Internet service providers despite evidence that the US government is using the Internet in a way that could chill our freedom of expression.
The asymmetrical approach to Internet regulation supported by net neutrality advocates may have succeeded in distorting the economics of the Internet marketplace, but the evidence indicates it has done nothing to enhance “Internet freedom.” Just ask Rodrigo Ferrari.