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How The Supreme Court's Recent Free Speech Ruling May Destroy Hollywood's Plans To Kick People Off The Internet

Earlier this week, we wrote about the details of the Supreme Court's ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina -- the case that said a North Carolina law that barred convicted sex offenders from using social media was unconstitutional. There were some good lines in the ruling, but this may be the most important:

Even with these assumptions about the scope of the law and the State’s interest, the statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens. Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another about it on any subject that might come to mind.... By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are 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. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with anInternet connection to “become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox."...

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences. Even convicted criminals—and in some instances especially convicted criminals—might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

As we noted in our original post, 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.

As noted by copyright professor Annemarie Bridy, this clearly could impact those other cases following this ruling:

Packingham is relevant to this conversation because it stands quite clearly for the proposition that broadly defined state-mandated limits on access to the Internet raise serious First Amendment issues. Packingham challenged the constitutionality of a North Carolina criminal statute prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing “commercial social networking sites” on the Internet. In striking down the statute on First Amendment grounds, the Court emphasized the critical importance of the Internet in general, and social media platforms in particular, to everyday life in the “Cyber Age.” While the Court recognized a significant governmental interest in preventing use of the Internet for criminal activity, it held that North Carolina’s ban on social media access swept too broadly. Interestingly, the Court elected not to decide with precision how much of the Internet the challenged statute put off limits. It declined to say—because it didn’t think it had to—whether the statute’s prohibition reached sites like Amazon.com, Washingtonpost.com, and WebMD.com in addition to “commonly understood” social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The Court concluded that the statute couldn’t survive First Amendment scrutiny even if it were narrowly construed to cover only the social media platforms that everyone can agree are social media platforms. To put it another way, the statute’s prohibition was broad enough to offend the First Amendment even when narrowly construed to cover only parts of the Web.

Bridy doesn't go so far as to argue that Packingham means 512(i) is unconstitutional -- in fact, she notes that it's more limited than the North Carolina law that was struck down. But, she notes:

Packingham’s holding should serve as a reminder to lower courts interpreting section 512(i) that termination of access to the Internet implicates core First Amendment values: “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in the spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace.” Consequently, courts should consider it reasonable, and within the bounds of the DMCA safe harbor, for broadband providers to determine that “appropriate circumstances” for terminating a user’s access to the whole Internet for infringing copyright are very rare.

Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, goes a bit further in his own analysis, arguing that when it comes to internet access providers, it seems clear that parts of 512(i) requiring termination, should be seen as unconstitutional, while also pointing out that to argue against this might mean Hollywood arguing that copyright infringement is somehow worse that child molestation.

Granted, Hollywood lobbyists and their wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress are capable of arguing with a straight face that copyright infringement is actually worse than child molestation and therefore the government purpose is sufficiently compelling to override all First Amendment concerns. And some judges, like the district court judge in the BMG v. Cox decision, would probably agree. (Read his opinion here to see if you agree.) But I’m doubtful that the majority of appeals court judges will agree. Whether or not one treats the majority opinion’s public forum analysis of social networks as “dicta” (which is legalese for “stuff in an opinion I don’t like so I don’t consider binding”), all 8 Supreme Court justices agreed that subscribers have a First Amendment right to access information and speak online, and that the government cannot prohibit a person from accessing content that has nothing to do with preventing repeat offenses — even when the repeat offense is child molestation, and the evidence arguably supported that child molesters were particularly prone to repetition.

Sorry, if molesting minors doesn’t justify permanently kicking you off the Internet, downloading 3 advance copies of Transformers: The Last Knight shouldn’t either. Congress cannot require ISPs to terminate subscribers accused of downloading pirating material (which is what Section 512(i) amounts to) anymore than it can criminalize accessing the Internet after being accused of downloading pirated material. Nor do I expect Big Content to prevail by arguing that getting you thrown off your ISP isn’t blocking you from accessing the Internet, because of all the amazing broadband options you have to replace your loss of service. While America boasted thousands of dial-up ISPs in 1998 when the DMCA was passed, most folks are lucky to have a choice of two landline providers capable of providing reliable, always on broadband of sufficient quality to allow me to engage in all my protected First Amendment online activity.

There is the separate question of whether or not this ruling would also kill off 512(i) as it applies to service providers on the network (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Techdirt, etc...) rather than internet access providers, such as Comcast, AT&T, etc. Feld thinks there is an argument that the opinion could be read to block such rulings as well:

Whether Packingham makes Section 512(i)’s requirement that all social media sites and other “covered entities” have termination policies for “repeat infringers” is somewhat less clear. Taking the majority analysis as actual opinion rather than “undisciplined dicta,” then the answer is clearly yes for major social network sites and platforms including — wait for it — Youtube. It’s kind of hard to argue that the largest online video platform, whose videos include some of the most important raw footage of critical events and which has become a central location for debate, doesn’t qualify as the kind of online public forum Kennedy described. Nor does it make much sense to say access to Facebook and Twitter are protected under the First Amendment while access to Youtube isn’t.

OTOH, I’m not sure the same analysis applies to cloud storage or other services that don’t share the attributes of a general public forum. And, of course, websites or services that are set up expressly to facilitate the exchange of infringing material don’t qualify for safe harbor protection anyway, so the hypothetical Doctor Evil Sing Along Piracy Exchange is already subject to liability.

Of course, none of this should apply to the platforms making decisions themselves over removing content or users from their own platforms (for which the platforms have their own First Amendment protections). Yet, I would not be at all surprised to see someone raise this issue in court, and argue that Packingham means that major social networks (Facebook, especially, but likely Twitter and YouTube as well) have no right to bar users. I think that would be a bad result, but the language in the Packingham ruling at least makes such a ruling a lot more plausible than it was last week.

The Packingham ruling is likely to have quite a lot of impact, and as predicted yesterday, I expect it to be quoted frequently in cases involving the internet over the next few years.

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