Of Blogs, eBooks, and Broadband: Access to Digital Media as a First Amendment Right
64 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2007 Last revised: 25 Oct 2012
In an information society, wealth and power are increasingly linked to access to knowledge and control over telecommunications media. Struggles over access to digital media in particular are presenting uniquely contentious First Amendment problems. The creation of about 200 million blogs worldwide has triggered legal action and legislative reform aimed at alleged trademark infringement by bloggers and cybersquatters. Authors and publishers seek expanded rights to curtail unauthorized digital uses for which they are not being compensated, and have sued Google for digitizing and indexing tens of millions of the world's books and periodicals. Finally, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and other Internet and e-commerce firms are trying to beat back plans by the nation's cable and telephone companies to finance upgrades to their networks by levying discriminatory fees on search engines, as well as on Internet content providers and aggregators. Internet users have often been on the losing side of these controversies, as the economic model increasingly adopted by the Supreme Court is that in order to reward corporations for collecting or disseminating information, its free flow in print and electronic form must often be impeded, and its cost to the user increased. This model threatens to empower broadband companies, copyright holders, and trademark owners to restrict the right of the public to utilize digital media for purposes of free speech.
This Article argues that digital media such as the broadband Internet, the World Wide Web, and the blogosphere should be at least as free as the press was at the time that the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. In other words, bloggers could not be enjoined or fined for tarnishing the trademarks or goodwill of their employers or other corporations, for trademark law did not prohibit trademark dilution or other non-competitive uses in 1791. Similarly, Web sites and search engines such as Google could not be restrained from digitizing, indexing, and providing short previews of books and periodicals, for copyright law in 1791 permitted abridgements, adaptations, reviews, and other value-added uses of copyrighted work. Finally, the cable and telephone companies would not be at liberty to levy discriminatory access fees upon digital media outlets, for their ability to monopolize local telecommunications networks is a legacy of anticompetitive state and federal exclusion of new entrants over the past century in violation of the First Amendment. The framers of the First Amendment would no more have countenanced an attempt by Congress and the federal courts to allow private entities enjoying the fruits of past official monopolies to restrain the freedom of speech over an essential facility such as the Internet than they would have endorsed the creation of a series of local book publishing or newspaper monopolies. The framers presumed that information would flow freely and cheaply to citizens and consumers, enabling them to ascertain their true interests without difficulty, and to make decisions accordingly. As Congress considered ratifying the First Amendment, Madison declared that by it the liberty of the press is expressly declared to be beyond the reach of this Government. The Supreme Court has construed most of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights to provide at least as much protection against infringement as existed under the common law in 1791.
Opponents of net neutrality requirements have opined that the First Amendment rights of corporate owners of telecommunications infrastructure should trump the First Amendment rights of individual speakers and users of telecommunications media. Under this view, the foremost free speech interests on the Internet are those of broadband infrastructure owners, rather than the senders and recipients of Internet speech such as Web content, blogs, eBooks, or online videos. This line of argument misconceives both the distinctive character of the Internet and the purposes for which the First Amendment was enacted. The Internet and its principal applications such as the World Wide Web grew as rapidly as they did because they were designed to be open, flexible, and uninhibited by gatekeeper control. The high degree of concentration in the broadband market, the inability of many consumers to switch broadband carriers, and plans by broadband providers to discriminate among different sources of Internet content combine to threaten the Internet as an open, decentralized, low-cost communications platform. The First Amendment is not offended by regulations designed to ensure that firms awarded local telecommunications monopolies by the government exercise their power to restrict mass communication in a manner consistent with the public interest. The overriding purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure that readers, listeners, and viewers of public debates obtain access to a wide variety of facts and opinions so as to be able to discern the truth as best they can. Even privileging the speaker's perspective, surely the First Amendment interests of the creators, editors, and aggregators of Web sites, blogs, and online videos - rather than the supposed speech interests of the owners of the wires along which content travels - should prevail in the event of a conflict.
Keywords: First Amendment, free, speech, blogs, ebooks, trademark, copyright, neutrality, broadband, fair, use, Lanham, Google, Microsoft, cybersquatting, fairness, dilution
JEL Classification: K10, K19, K21, K23, L10, L12, L40, L41, L44
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation