Last week the Supreme Court managed to hold its nose long enough to properly assert that banning convicted sex offenders from social media was plainly an infringement on their First Amendment rights. While much of the media coverage focused on the question of sex offenders having access to these well-trafficked websites, the real implications of the ruling were always likely to be far more reaching. We specifically pointed to the reasonable question: if sex offenders can't be blocked from internet sites due to their First Amendment rights, how can we possibly require ISPs to disconnect those accused of piracy from the internet under even the most tortured reading of 512(i) of the DMCA? In that original post, Mike wrote:
I expect that to be quoted in many other cases -- and a big one may be the ongoing attempts right now by the legacy entertainment industry to force ISPs to kick people off of their service based on accusations (not convictions) of infringement. Those cases, like this Packingham case, involve using a law to claim that people should be blocked from using the internet. And based on the quotes above, it seems quite likely that parts of the DMCA are clearly unconstitutional. The lawsuits -- mainly the BMG v. Cox ruling which is currently on appeal, and the more recent UMG v. Grande Communications (which follows the same basic outlines of the Cox case) -- involve arguing that 512(i) of the DMCA requires ISPs to kick users off their service entirely based on accusations of infringement. As we've explained, this already appears to be a twisted interpretation of 512(i), but now it appears there's a very reasonable chance that the Supreme Court could find 512(i) outright unconstitutional under the First Amendment for broadly blocking internet access in a way that harms free speech rights.
It appears we're starting down the road of finding out exactly what the court's answer to this question will be, as Cox recently filed an appeal and has now referenced the SCOTUS decision in its written arguments.
Packingham is directly relevant to what constitute ‘appropriate circumstances’ to terminate Internet access to Cox’s customers. The decision emphatically establishes the centrality of Internet access to protected First Amendment activity.
As the Court recognized, Internet sources are often ‘the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge’.
The filing goes on to note that the government is not allowed to infringe on free speech in order to prohibit unlawful speech. If ever there were an example of that very thing, it certainly would be accused pirates being disconnected from what has now been cited as a speech medium in the internet. I'm genuinely looking forward to hearing oral arguments from the legal staff of the movie and record labels that those accused of piracy, typically on flimsy at best evidence, ought to be afforded less rights than convicted sex offenders. We've seen much demonizing of the internet in general and piracy in particular, but I'm having a hard time conjuring up the images of those lawyers managing to go that far. That's an argument that's going to need to be made, however, given the contention of Cox's latest filing.
And if it offends the Constitution to cut off a portion of Internet access to convicted criminals, then the district court’s erroneous interpretation of Section 512(i) of the DMCA — which effectively invokes the state’s coercive power to require ISPs to terminate all Internet access to merely accused infringers — cannot stand.
A win for Cox would mean much for the free speech rights of everyone in regards to internet access. A loss would mean this country's court system has some seriously skewed priorities for who should and should not be allowed access to the web.