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Democrats in Congress Attempt to Reinstate Net Neutrality with Maneuver Against FCC

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Photo Courtesy Sen. Ed Markey

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2019 – On Wednesday, 46 House and Senate Democrats moved forward with legislation that would codify so-called “network neutrality” legislation into law, bypassing a court dispute over their repeal by the Trump administration Federal Communications Commission.

The Save the Internet Act of 2019 would once re-instate network neutrality rules using an approach similar to last year’s attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to disapprove of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality.

Last year’s CRA passed the Senate, but was never brought up for a vote in the House by the then-Republican majority.

Instead of enacting statutory prohibitions against paid prioritization, blocking and throttling of internet traffic by service providers, thereby writing network neutrality principles into what President Lyndon Johnson once called “the books of law,” the Save the Internet Act would declare that repeal order adopted by the FCC in December 2017 “shall have no force or effect,” and would prohibit the agency from reissuing any rule that is “substantially the same” as the one which repealed the 2015 rules, unless specifically authorized by an act of Congress.

If signed into law by President Donald Trump, the Save the Internet Act would literally turn back the regulatory clock by restoring the network neutrality regulations which were in effect on the last day of the Obama administration.

The similarities between this latest legislative effort to restore the Obama-era network neutrality rules and last year’s Congressional Review Act resolution go beyond the legislation’s text. The bill’s lead sponsors are Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn. and Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., the duo behind the attempt to use a Congressional Review Act resolution to undo what was one of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s top priorities.

“Net neutrality ensures that when you pay your monthly bill to your internet service provider, you can able to access all content on the web at the same speed as your neighbor or big corporations,” said Markey, who has been a passionate advocate of strong network neutrality protections since the George W. Bush administration.

Markey called the Save the Internet Act a “clear and simple” piece of legislation, meant to “overturn the Trump FCC’s wrongheaded decision and restore strong net neutrality protections.”

Like last year’s Congressional Review Act resolution, this year’s Markey-Doyle team-up has the support of Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate.

Supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

“It is an honor to join Democrats from both sides of the Capitol to introduce this strong legislation, which honors the will of the millions of Americans speaking out to demand an end to the Trump assault on net neutrality,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Democrats are proudly taking bold action to restore net neutrality protections: lowering costs and increasing choice for consumers, giving entrepreneurs a level playing field on which to compete, helping bring broadband to every corner of the country, and ensuring that American innovation and entrepreneurialism can continue to be the envy of the world.”

Chris Lewis, Vice President of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, hailed the Markey-Doyle bill as “a simple, consensus approach to restoring strong net neutrality protections” with support from “a diverse and broad array of industry, nonprofit, racial justice, and other organizations.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said he was “pleased” with the proposed legislation.

“I continue to believe that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach and the bill introduced today takes us back in that direction—a direction that will empower the FCC to keep the internet open as a gateway to opportunity for students, job seekers, consumers, creators, and businesses,” said Starks, a Democrat and the newest member of the FCC.

Narrow CRA-like approach potentially on shaky legal ground

Representatives from Markey’s office did not respond to BroadbandBreakfast.com’s inquiry as to why Democrats were trying to restore old regulations rather than codify net neutrality protections into statutory language.

One longtime telecom industry observer suggested that the “simple, consensus approach” spoken of by Public Knowledge’s Lewis may be on shaky legal ground.

According to Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom, the one-page bill is “a total sham, a fraud that cynically manipulates concern about net neutrality in a way that is carefully calculated to maximize Democrats’ political advantage instead of actually doing anything to protect net neutrality.”

Szoka suggested that Democrats, who managed to peel away three Senate Republican votes during last year’s CRA effort, are setting themselves up to use the copycat Markey-Doyle bill as a political bludgeon in hopes of gaining those Senate seats after the 2020 election.

He also noted that regardless of motivations, the legal basis on which the Democrats’ bill would revive the 2015 network neutrality rules is potentially shaky.

“Rarely, if ever, has such a short bill raised so many obvious legal problems,” Szoka said, noting that the Congressional Review Act — the authority on which the Save the Internet Act is based — allows Congress to strike down rules issued by regulatory agencies like the FCC, but not the orders by which an agency interprets provisions of a statute.

“Simply reviving a defunct regulatory order isn’t legislation, and probably wouldn’t stand up in court when challenged,” he said, adding that the bill is likely dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

(Screenshot of Sen. Ed Markey courtesy MSNBC.)

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Andrew Feinberg covers the White House, Capitol Hill, and anywhere else news happens for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He has reported on policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007, and his writing has appeared in publications like The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Silicon Angle, and Washington Business Journal. He has also appeared on both daytime and prime radio and television news programs on NPR, Sirius-XM, CNN, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Al Jazeera, NBC Digital, Voice of America, TV Rain (Russia) and CBS News. Andrew wishes he could say he lives in Washington, DC with his dog, but unfortunately, he lives in a no-dogs building in suburban Maryland.

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A Short History of Online Free Speech, Part I: The Communications Decency Act Is Born

Emily McPhie

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Photo of Chuck Grassley in April 2011 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, August 19, 2019 — Despite all the sturm und drang surrounding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act today, the measure was largely ignored when first passed into law 23 years ago. A great deal of today’s discussion ignores the statute’s unique history and purposes as part of the short-lived CDA.

In this four-part series, Broadband Breakfast reviews the past with an eye toward current controversies, and the future of online free speech.

This article looks at content moderation on early online services, and how that fueled concern about indecency in general. On Tuesday, we’ll look at how Section 230 is similar to and different from America’s First Amendment legacy.

On Wednesday, in Part III, Broadband Breakfast revisits the reality and continuing mythology surrounding the “Fairness Doctrine.” Does it or has it ever applied online? And finally, on Thursday, we’ll envision what the future holds for the legal treatment of “hate speech.”

While most early chat boards did not moderate, Prodigy did – to its peril

The early days of the internet were dominated by online service providers such as America Online, Delphi, CompuServe, and Prodigy. CompuServe did not engage in any form of content moderation, whereas Prodigy positioned itself as a family-friendly alternative by enforcing content guidelines and screening offensive language.

It didn’t take long for both platforms to be sued for defamation. In the 1991 case Cubby v. CompuServe, the federal district court in New York ruled that CompuServe could not be held liable for third party content of which it had no knowledge, similar to a newsstand or library.

But in 1995, the New York supreme court ruled in Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy that the latter platform had taken on liability for all posts simply by attempting to moderate some, constituting editorial control.

“That such control is not complete…does not minimize or eviscerate the simple fact that Prodigy has uniquely arrogated to itself the role of determining what is proper for its members to post and read on its bulletin boards,” the court wrote.

Prodigy had more than two million subscribers, and they collectively generated 60,000 new postings per day, far more than the platform could review on an individual basis. The decision gave them no choice but to either do that or forgo content moderation altogether.

Many early supporters of the internet criticized the ruling from a business perspective, warning that penalizing online platforms for attempting to moderate content would incentivize the option of not moderating at all. The resulting platforms would be less useable, and by extension, less successful.

The mid-1990s seemed to bring a cultural crises of online indecency

But an emerging cultural crisis also drove criticism of the Stratton Oakmont court’s decision. As a myriad of diverse content was suddenly becoming available to anyone with computer access, parents and lawmakers were becoming panicked about the new accessibility of indecent and pornographic material, especially to minors.

A Time Magazine cover from just two months after the decision depicted a child with bulging eyes and dropped jaw, illuminated by the ghastly light of a computer screen. Underneath a bold title reading “cyberporn” in all caps, an ominous headline declared the problem to be “pervasive and wild.”

And then it posed the question that was weighing heavily on certain members of Congress: “Can we protect our kids—and free speech?”

The foreboding study behind the cover story, which was entered into the congressional record by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was found to be deeply flawed and Time quickly backpedaled. But the societal panic over the growing accessibility of cyberporn continued.

Thus was born the Communications Decency Act, meant to address what Harvard Law Professor Howard Zittrain called a “change in reality.” The law made it illegal to knowingly display or transmit obscene or indecent content online if such content would be accessible by minors.

Challenges in keeping up with the sheer volume of indecent content online

However, some members of Congress felt that government enforcement would not be able to keep up with the sheer volume of indecent content being generated online, rendering private sector participation necessary.

This prompted Representatives Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Chris Cox, R-Calif., to introduce an amendment to the CDA ensuring that providers of an interactive computer service would not be held liable for third-party content, thus allowing them to moderate with impunity.

Section 230—unlike what certain politicians have claimed in recent months—held no promise of neutrality. It was simply meant to protect online Good Samaritans trying to screen offensive material from a society with deep concerns about the internet’s potential impact on morality.

“We want to encourage people like Prodigy, like CompuServe, like America Online, like the new Microsoft network, to do everything possible for us, the customer, to help us control, at the portals of our computer, at the front door of our house, what comes in and what our children see,” Cox told his fellow representatives.

“Not even a federal internet censorship army would give our government the power to keep offensive material out of the hands of children who use the new interactive media,” Wyden said. Such a futile effort would “make the Keystone Cops look like crackerjack crime-fighters,” he added, referencing comedically incompetent characters from an early 1900s comedy.

The amendment was met with bipartisan approval on the House floor and passed in a 420–4 vote. The underlying Communications Decency Act was much more controversial. Still, it was signed into law with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Although indecency on radio and TV broadcasts have long been subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, the CDA was seen as an assault on the robust world of free speech that was emerging on the global internet.

Passage of the CDA as part of the Telecom Act was met with online outrage.

The following 48 hours saw thousands of websites turn their background color to black in protest as tech companies and activist organizations joined in angry opposition to the new law.

Critics argued that not only were the terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” ambiguous, it was not technologically or economically feasible for online platforms and businesses to screen out minors.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the law, and other civil liberties organizations and technology industry groups joined in to protest.

“By imposing a censorship scheme unprecedented in any medium, the CDA would threaten what one lower court judge called the ‘never-ending world-wide conversation’ on the Internet,” said Ann Beeson, ACLU national staff attorney, in 1997.

By June of 1997, the Supreme Court had struck down the anti-indecency provisions of the CDA. But legally severed from the rest of the act, Section 230 survived.

Section II, tomorrow: Is Section 230 all that different from the First Amendment?

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On Fox Business, Donald Trump Blasts Twitter and Claims Bias in Favor of Democrats

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Screenshot of Trump on Fox Business Network

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2019 – President Donald Trump on Wednesday unleashed baseless allegations of censorship against Twitter, claiming that the social media giant somehow makes it harder for people to follow him and for him to communicate with his followers.

During a extensive phone interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump was asked to comment on a viral video depicting a Google executive speaking about the company’s desire to combat foreign propaganda and misinformation. Many conservatives have claimed that combating foreign propaganda is akin to preventing Trump’s reelection.

But the president changed the subject to Twitter, which he said did something “incredible” to him.

“I have… millions and millions of followers, but I will tell you, they make it very hard for people to join me in Twitter and they make it very much harder for me to get out the message,” said Trump, who has about 61.4 million followers on the site.

The President offered no explanation of how Twitter makes it hard for people to follow him or for him to communicate with them. He said that Twitter executives “are all Democrats,” and said that because of that, the platform they run is “totally biased” in favor of members of the Democratic party.

“If I announced tomorrow that I’m going to become a nice liberal Democrat, I would pick up a five times more of a following,” he said, while again offering no evidence to support his claim.

He also said that Twitter was responsible for a drop in the number people who were beginning to follow his tweets. He provided no evidence for conscious activity on the part of Twitter.

“I was picking up 100,000 followers every few days and all of a sudden, and I’m much hotter now than I was a number of months ago. Then all of a sudden that stopped, and now I pick up a lot, but I don’t pick up nearly what I did,” he said.

One possible reason for the drop in the number of new people following him might be that fewer people are interested in following him.

According to Axios, data from Crowdtangle shows that Trump’s “interaction rate” on Twitter dropped from the 0.55 pecent his tweets posted in November 2016 to 0.32 percent in June 2017.

The same data shows his interaction rate has continued to tumble, and was as low as 0.16 percent as of May 25, 2019.

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Culture War Comes to Silicon Valley as Sen. Josh Hawley Introduces Bill to Strip Immunity from Social Media

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Senator Josh Hawley (Drew Clark / Breakfast Media)

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2019 — Legislation authored by Sen. Joshua Hawley could signal the start of a new chapter of the culture war: Conservatives directly targeting Silicon Valley tech companies.

On Wednesday, Hawley, R-Mo., announced that he’d introduced the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” (PDF), which would repeal a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that granted online service providers immunity from liability for user-generated content posted on their websites.

The law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has increasingly come to be seen as generous – and perhaps overly generous – in encouraging robust online discussion. Many of the law’s most public beneficiaries – Facebook, Google, Twitter – are now the technology platforms that are America’s largest companies.

As a result, a growing group of tech critics are saying that Section 230 is no longer in the national interest.

Section 230 was included in the Telecom Act as a way of incentivizing websites concerned that they would be held liable for the comments of others. It was intended to reverse court rulings holding an online service provider liable for defamatory content posted by users when the tech company employed moderators to enforce terms of service rules.

Hawley’s mission against Facebook

Only six months into his first term, Hawley has garnered attention in conservative media circles by taking up the cause of conservative-identifying social media users. They claim that social media companies who ban or suspend the social networks’ rules against hate speech, threats, and harassment amounts to political censorship, even if done by a private sector actor.

(See our story last month, “Sen. Josh Hawley Accuses Facebook of Addiction and Calls Social Media Worth-Less,” which also touched upon Sen. Hawley’s views about Section 230.)

Now, Hawley says he wants condition providers’ immunity on their ability to convince four of five members of the Federal Trade Commission that they have not discriminated against conservatives when applying their terms of service.

The bill would only apply to platforms with more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue.

It would require these giant tech platforms to biannually provide the FTC with “clear and convincing evidence” that “their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”

“With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in a statement.

“This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity, they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don’t discriminate.”

Tech industry lobbyists wonder whether they should take it seriously

But industry and legal experts savaged Hawley’s proposal as antithetical to the First Amendment and a throwback to policies long rejected by conservatives, including the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters using the nation’s radiofrequency spectrum to grant airtime to opposing views.

Computer & Communications Industry Association President Ed Black deplored the “ludicrousness” of Hawley’s proposal, which he called “an unbelievable disregard for the essence of the First Amendment and attempt to overlay a lens of partisan politics over the communications of millions of Americans.”

“If Congress is serious about tech companies doing more to remove hate speech and illegal content online, putting new restrictions on the legal protection that allows them to do that would be ill-advised,” Black said.

In a statement, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka said that the measure would effectively require internet companies to obtain a license from the FTC in order to operate. It would make them depend on the goodwill of FTC commissioners and the presidents who nominate them.

Szoka, who testified last year at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on conservatives’ allegations of political censorship, predicted that the biannual vote Hawley’s bill requires would turn into a “partisan bloodmatch” in which companies would be presumed guilty and have to prove their innocence.

“The bill would give politicians a gigantic regulatory hammer to use against big tech and transform the FTC overnight into the most politicized regulatory body in Washington,” he said. “Sadly, that seems to be the point.”

Szoka noted that Hawley’s bill would deter companies from making social networks “usable for normal people” by moderating content and combatting abusive behavior, extreme content and disinformation, and suggested such deterrence is meant to benefit Republicans.

“If, as social science research suggests, such harmful content seems to help Republicans energize their base more than it helps Democrats, even truly ‘neutral’ enforcement of terms of service will, on net, hurt the Right,” he said. “That which would explain why Republicans insist on framing content moderation as ‘censorship’ of their views.”

Emily McPhie contributed reporting.

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