It has been said, by someone far wiser than I, that there is a certain "firstness" about the First Amendment's protection of free speech. There is an undeniable primacy about the guarantee of freedom of speech in a democracy, and one would have thought that guardians of the "public interest" would all be on the same page about regulatory threats to this core value. And that is what made Public Knowledge Legal Director Harold Feld's recent post about the Supreme Court's decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations so surprising.
Supreme Court Decision in FCC v. Fox (Part 6: Other Articles & Opinions)
I've been blathering on about this week's big Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox, [See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5], so I thought I would just wrap this series of essays up with a collection of other articles and views on the decision in case readers are looking for alternative perspectives:
Supreme Court Decision in FCC v. Fox (Part 5: The Dissents)
I've been commenting on yesterday's Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox, and criticizing the logic of the majority's decision the case, which was driven solely by procedural / admin law considerations. [See Part 3.] I also discussed Justice Thomas's very interesting concurring opinion, which took a serious look at the constitutional issues in play here and signaled his willingness to potentially overturn Red Lion and Pacifica. [See Part 4.] In this fifth installment, I will briefly outline some of the dissenting arguments.
Justice Stephen Breyer penned a lengthy dissent and was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg. Like the Scalia majority decision, the Breyer dissent also focused on the procedural / APA-related issues at stake in the case. Breyer, however, was not buying the FCC's assertion that it had adequately justified its significant expansion of indecency enforcement in recent years. Whereas the majority deferred to the agency and found "no basis in the Act or this Court's opinions for a requirement that all agency change be subjected to more searching review," the four dissenting justices saw things quite differently. Breyer noted that while the "law grants those in charge of independent administrative agencies broad authority to determine relevant policy," it "does not permit them to make policy choices for purely political reasons nor to rest them primarily upon unexplained policy preferences." He goes on to appropriately note that:
Federal Communications Commissioners have fixed terms of office; they are not directly responsible to the voters; and they enjoy an independence expressly designed to insulate them, to a degree, from "'the exercise of political oversight.'" [citations omitted] That insulation helps to secure important governmental objectives, such as the constitutionally related objective of maintaining broadcast regulation that does not bend too readily before the political winds. But that agency's comparative freedom from ballot-box control makes it all the more important that courts review its decision making to assure compliance with applicable provisions of the law -- including law requiring that major policy decisions be based upon articulable reasons.
Breyer goes on to restate much of what is already clear from the APA and all that surrounds it. "[A]n agency must act consistently. The agency must follow its own rules," he notes. Moreover:
I've been quite depressed to witness Bruce Schneier's ongoing conversion from opponent of government intervention in the high-tech economy (at least on encryption) to vociferous proponent (at least in terms of privacy regulation). Anyway, his latest cheerleading piece for government privacy regulation in Wall Street Journal includes lots of fear-mongering about private website data collection for, God forbid, purposes of trying to better target advertising and market us products we might actually want.
Schneier uses the term "deceptive" several times in the piece to refer to privacy policies that don't make it explicitly clear that some of the information you leave on a site, or that is collected preemptively by them, will be used to craft more targeted marketing efforts. Like many other would-be privacy regulators, Schneier seemingly wants companies to fly blimps over your desk as you surf the Net with big signs that basically say: 'Hey stupid, your info may be used to market you stuff.' It's hard to be against more disclosure, of course -- and most sites spell out what they do with data in their privacy policies -- but it never seems to be good enough for most privacy advocates, who paint consumers out to be mindless sheep who cannot be trusted to make wise decisions for themselves. Sorry, but I just don't buy it.
NTIA names Online Safety Technical Working Group members
Today, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the members of the new Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG). I am honored to be among those chosen to participate in this new task force and I look forward to continuing the work started last year with the Harvard Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), which I also served on. I was very proud of the work done by the ISTTF and the impressive final report that Prof. John Palfrey crafted to reflect our findings. I am eager to investigate these issues further and take a look at the latest research and technologies that can help us better understand how to protect our kids online while also protecting the free speech and privacy rights of Netizens.
The new NTIA working group, which was established under the "Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," will report to the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information on industry-implemented online child safety tools and efforts. Within a year of convening its first meeting, the group will submit a report of its findings and make recommendations on how to increase online safety measures.
Below the fold I have listed the complete roster of OSTWG task force members. I very much looking forward to working with this outstanding group.
Supreme Court Decision in FCC v. Fox (Part 4: The Thomas Concurrence)
With today's historic Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox, I have been commenting on the logic and implications of the decision. Part 3 dealt with the majority's decision in the case, which was driven solely by procedural / admin law considerations. This installment will discuss the very interesting concurring opinion penned by Justice Thomas, which is the only one that takes a serious look at the constitutional foundations of the FCC's current regulatory regime. While I was sad to see Justice Thomas join the majority's decision upholding the FCC's radical expansion of speech regulation in recent years, he joined that majority only on straightforward procedural grounds. On the underlying constitutional issues at stake here, it is clear from his concurring statement that he is ready for the Court to hear a challenge to the previous court precedents and traditional regulatory doctrines that have long supported FCC speech and media controls.
"I write separately," Justice Thomas says "to note the questionable viability of the two precedents that support the FCC's assertion of constitutional authority to regulate the programming at issue in this case." Specifically, he addresses the two key cases upon which almost all FCC speech regulation rests: Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U. S. 367 (1969) and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726 (1978). Thomas continues: "Red Lion and Pacifica were unconvincing when they were issued, and the passage of time has only increased doubt regarding their continued validity."
BOOM! With those words, Justice Thomas has dropped the hammer and taken what will hopefully be the first swing at toppling the house of cards that is modern FCC speech regulation. Justice Thomas goes on to itemize the many problems with what I have referred to as "America's Jurisprudential Twilight Zone" when it comes to how we apply the First Amendment to media platforms in this country. He states:
The most important thing to realize about the Court's 5-4 decision in FCC v. Fox is that the Court has intentionally dodged all the serious constitutional issues in play here and instead decided the case solely on procedural grounds. "We decline to address the constitutional questions at this time," the majority says. (p. 26) Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia says:
There is... no basis in the Act or this Court's opinions for a requirement that all agency change be subjected to more searching review. Although an agency must ordinarily display awareness that it is changing position... and may sometimes need to account for prior fact finding or certain reliance interests created by a prior policy, it need not demonstrate to a court's satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one. It suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change adequately indicates.
Of course, it's not entirely unusual for the Court to decide important regulatory cases by sticking to administrative law / APA issues, but what's different in this case is that we're not talking about the regulation of widgets here. We are talking about the regulation of freedom of speech and expression. Shouldn't the administrative law analysis change a bit when the issues at stake implicate profound constitutional imperatives? I think so, but the majority doesn't address that.
While the Court decided this case on purely procedural grounds, its failure to address the constitutional issues at stake will leave the First Amendment freedoms of both media creators and consumers in this country uncertain until another case winds its way up to the court, which could take years. Practically speaking, as Justice Thomas noted, what's the point of continuing to apply a censorship regime to one of the oldest mediums--broadcast TV and radio--when kids are flocking to unregulated mediums in large numbers? At this point, we're doing little more than protecting adults from themselves and destroying over-the-air broadcasting in the process.
Until the Court clearly addresses the First Amendment protection of broadcasting in light of the Digital Revolution, we'll just have to speculate as to how to reconcile the broadcast law of bygone era with the Court's recent Internet jurisprudence--which has strongly supported the First Amendment. Although new media technologies and platforms are not covered currently by FCC content controls, the specter of regulation now haunts all media as platforms continue to converge and broadcast content gets repurposed on other platforms.
Finally, what makes the Court's ruling even less sensible is that all parents have an extensive array of tools and strategies at their disposal to control media in their homes and in their lives of the children. That is especially the case for broadcast television programming, which is easier to control than ever before. The Court has held that user empowerment and private blocking solutions should shield the Internet from content regulation. Why shouldn't the same principle apply to broadcasting?
Supreme Court Decision in FCC v. Fox (Part 1: The Decision)
Breaking news: The Supreme Court as just ruled in the important First Amendment case of Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations and held in the government's favor by a 5-4 vote. Decision is here.
My background info about the case is here and will publish some essays throughout the day as I digest the decision. Importantly, the case was decided squarely on procedural grounds, not constitutional grounds. However, Justice Thomas has some very important and interesting things to say about those constitutional issues in his separate concurrence. Coverage from AP, Reuters, and UPI.
The full decision can be viewed below in a Scribd reader:
Here's a terrific piece by Harry McCracken over at Technologizer asking "Whatever Happened to the Top 15 Web Properties of April, 1999?" McCracken goes through the hottest web properties of April 1999 and asks, "How many of 1999's Web giants remain gigantic today -- assuming they still exist at all?" Instead of reproducing his entire list here, I'll just encourage you to go over to Technologizer and check it out for yourself, especially because McCracken also compares the old list to today's top 15 Web properties. Anyway, here's the key takeaway from his piece:
to summarize, four of April 1999's top Web properties remain in the top fifteen (plus AltaVista, Excite, and GeoCities, which are extant and part of top-10 properties). Four more are in the top 50, or are part of properties that are. Two exist but have fallen out of the top 50. And two (Xoom and Snap) no longer exist. Bottom line: If you were one of the Web's biggest properties a decade ago, chances are high that you remain in business in some form in 2009... but you probably aren't still a giant.
In other words, it's a dynamic marketplace with a lot of churn and creative destruction. Sure, some big dogs from the late 90s remain (Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, and CNet). But they have all been humbled to some extent. Moreover, lots and lots of other players were driven from the top ranks or disappeared altogether. (GeoCities, Lycos, Excite, AltaVista, Xoom, Snap). And there have been new technologies, platforms, and players that have come out of nowhere in a very short time to become the household names of 2009 (Google, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia). But, as McCracken points out, it's anyone's guess which of today's top Web properties will still be booming in 2019. Anyway, I encourage you to check out McCracken's very interesting essay, and if you find this sort of restrospective piece interesting, you might also want to check out my essay from earlier this year, "10 Years Ago Today... Thinking About Technological Progress".