End Of Day Ethics, 4/7/2021: “Ick,” Ethics, And Law

And as we bid farewell to April 7 and good morning to April 8, I want to wish my wonderful, kind, talented and tolerant wife of 40 years a happy birthday. I owe everything to her.

1. Well, you can’t accuse satellite radio of being politically correct…the Comedy Legend Sirius channel is a welcome oasis in the woke era humor desert, with routines old enough to remind one what it was like when comedians only had to worry about being funny to the audience at hand—and yet there are limits. At least, there should be. Today I heard an old Louis C.K. routine about his childhood. You recall how C.K. became a #MeToo arch-villain, costing him his show, bookings, and essentially his career, don’t you? He set a new low for celebrity sexual harassment by masturbating in front of non-consenting female visitors to his hotel room, and on more than one occasion. Ick. Also sick. In the routine featured on Sirius-XM, the comedian was reminiscing, to audience hilarity, how he showed his penis to a girl with Down Syndrome when he was nine. I don’t know that I would have ever found that story funny, but hearing C.K. tell it in light of his later revealed proclivities was an experience I could have lived my whole life without having. Since it is now clear to me that whoever programs that channel can’t be trusted to apply any discretion or common sense at all, I’m not sure it is safe for me to drive with it playing…

2. And while we’re on the topic of cluelessness, I give you Dusty Baker, manager of the MLB’s Houston Astros, who are finally hearing from their opposing teams’ fans regarding its cheating scandal. Last year there were no fans in the stands to express their contempt for Astro players, who that quick-thinking Solomon, Commissioner Rob Manfred, decided should be subjected to no punishment for stealing signs throughout the team’s 2017 World Championship season despite being the primary beneficiaries of the scheme. To remind the Astros that they communicated opposing catchers’ signs (intended to tell pitchers what pitches to throw) to its batters using the clatter of metal trash cans, fans have been throwing trash on the field, and this week, even an inflatable trash can followed by a metal one.

Throwing debris on the field is a time-honored tradition for angry fans, but the practice is against ballpark rules and unethical—you know, like cheating to win games. The Astros are ethically estopped from expressing too much indignation, and Manager Dusty Baker, who got his job because the scandal cost team general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch theirs, made the mistake of revealing the unethical logic that led the Astros to cheat in the first place.

“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Baker said following Houston’s lost 7-6 to the Angels after a night of fan insults. “How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life? We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time? It’s easy if you live in glass houses but I don’t think anybody lives in glass houses. I think sometimes we need to look at ourselves before we spew hate on somebody else.”

Shut up, Dusty. (Dusty Baker, by the way, is one of those sports “leaders” who Joe Biden urged to lead Major league Baseball to make an ass of itself by pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta based on Joe’s lies regarding its new voting law.) I’m pretty certain nobody in the stands in Anaheim ever cost people their careers (and million dollar salaries) by “cheating on a test.” A conspiracy that deeply scarred a national sport that had already suffered major self-inflicted blows to its integrity is not a “whatever.”

Like most Americans (their elected leaders, their educators and their journalists), Dusty apparently thinks cheating and ‘the ends justifies the means” should be shrugged off because “everybody does it.” The fans were cheated, Dusty. They bought their tickets, subscribed to broadcasts, and spent hours, dollars and passion on baseball because your employers falsely told them the players could be trusted, and your reasoning is that fans shouldn’t be angry because of the kindergarten logic of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”? You think all forms of cheating are equivalent, do you? That’s the ignorant mentality that got the Astros into this mess.

The Houston Astros players suffered no penalties at all for their cheating, and worse, they have been largely unapologetic about their conduct since they were caught. Fans need to find appropriate ways to express their anger, but Baker’s admonishment just tells us the level of ethical analysis a veteran and respected baseball manager brings to the sport.

None!

3. Justice Thomas, in contrast, is thinking juust a bit more clearly.

In Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated as moot Trump v. Knight First Amendment Institute, in which the Second Circuit had held that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking some users from his Twitter account. In a concurring opinion, Thomas suggested that some kind of regulation of social media platforms is needed, particularly as the government uses threats to force them to suppress unpopular or critical speech.

Thomas’s thoughtful analysis, which many believe will have significant influence on the debate over social media’s abuse of free speech and how the nation should address it, is worth reading:

When a person publishes a message on the social media platform Twitter, the platform by default enables others to republish (retweet) the message or respond (reply) to it or other replies in a designated comment thread. The user who generates the original message can manually “block” others from republishing or responding.

Donald Trump, then President of the United States, blocked several users from interacting with his Twitter account. They sued. The Second Circuit held that the comment threads were a “public forum” and that then-President Trump violated the First Amendment by using his control of the Twitter account to block the plaintiffs from accessing the comment threads. But Mr. Trump, it turned out, had only limited control of the account; Twitter has permanently removed the account from the platform.

Because of the change in Presidential administration, the Court correctly vacates the Second Circuit’s decision. See United States v. Munsingwear, Inc. (1950). I write separately to note that this petition highlights the principal legal difficulty that surrounds digital platforms—namely, that applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward. Respondents have a point, for example, that some aspects of Mr. Trump’s account resemble a constitutionally protected public forum. But it seems rather odd to say that something is a government forum when a private company has unrestricted authority to do away with it.

The disparity between Twitter’s control and Mr. Trump’s control is stark, to say the least. Mr. Trump blocked several people from interacting with his messages. Twitter barred Mr. Trump not only from interacting with a few users, but removed him from the entire platform, thus barring all Twitter users from interacting with his messages. {At the time, Mr. Trump’s Twitter account had 89 million followers.} Under its terms of service, Twitter can remove any person from the platform—including the President of the United States—”at any time for any or no reason.”

This is not the first or only case to raise issues about digital platforms. While this case involves a suit against a public official, the Court properly rejects today a separate petition [Freedom Watch v. Google] alleging that digital platforms, not individuals on those platforms, violated public accommodations laws, the First Amendment, and antitrust laws. The petitions highlight two important facts. Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties. We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.

[1] On the surface, some aspects of Mr. Trump’s Twitter account resembled a public forum. A designated public forum is “property that the State has opened for expressive activity by part or all of the public.” Mr. Trump often used the account to speak in his official capacity. And, as a governmental official, he chose to make the comment threads on his account publicly accessible, allowing any Twitter user—other than those whom he blocked—to respond to his posts.

Yet, the Second Circuit’s conclusion that Mr. Trump’s Twitter account was a public forum is in tension with, among other things, our frequent description of public forums as “government-controlled spaces” [or] … “government property and … government programs” [or] … “government properties.” Any control Mr. Trump exercised over the account greatly paled in comparison to Twitter’s authority, dictated in its terms of service, to remove the account “at any time for any or no reason.” Twitter exercised its authority to do exactly that.

Because unbridled control of the account resided in the hands of a private party, First Amendment doctrine may not have applied to respondents’ complaint of stifled speech…. [A] “private entity is not ordinarily constrained by the First Amendment” ….

Whether governmental use of private space implicates the First Amendment often depends on the government’s control over that space. For example, a government agency that leases a conference room in a hotel to hold a public hearing about a proposed regulation cannot kick participants out of the hotel simply because they express concerns about the new regulation. But government officials who informally gather with constituents in a hotel bar can ask the hotel to remove a pesky patron who elbows into the gathering to loudly voice his views. The difference is that the government controls the space in the first scenario, the hotel, in the latter. Where, as here, private parties control the avenues for speech, our law has typically addressed concerns about stifled speech through other legal doctrines, which may have a secondary effect on the application of the First Amendment.

[A.] If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude. Historically, at least two legal doctrines limited a company’s right to exclude.

First, our legal system and its British predecessor have long subjected certain businesses, known as common carriers, to special regulations, including a general requirement to serve all comers. Candeub, Bargaining for Free Speech: Common Carriage, Network Neutrality, and Section 230, 22 Yale J. L. & Tech. 391, 398–403 (2020); see also Burdick, The Origin of the Peculiar Duties of Public Service Companies, Pt. 1, 11 Colum. L. Rev. 514 (1911). Justifications for these regulations have varied. Some scholars have argued that common-carrier regulations are justified only when a carrier possesses substantial market power. Others have said that no substantial market power is needed so long as the company holds itself out as open to the public. See also Ingate v. Christie (Eng. 1850) (“[A] person [who] holds himself out to carry goods for everyone as a business … is a common carrier”). And this Court long ago suggested that regulations like those placed on common carriers may be justified, even for industries not historically recognized as common carriers, when “a business, by circumstances and its nature, … rise[s] from private to be of public concern.” At that point, a company’s “property is but its instrument, the means of rendering the service which has become of public interest.”

This latter definition of course is hardly helpful, for most things can be described as “of public interest.” But whatever may be said of other industries, there is clear historical precedent for regulating transportation and communications networks in a similar manner as traditional common carriers. Telegraphs, for example, because they “resemble[d] railroad companies and other common carriers,” were “bound to serve all customers alike, without discrimination.”

In exchange for regulating transportation and communication industries, governments—both State and Federal—have sometimes given common carriers special government favors. For example, governments have tied restrictions on a carrier’s ability to reject clients to “immunity from certain types of suits” or to regulations that make it more difficult for other companies to compete with the carrier (such as franchise licenses). By giving these companies special privileges, governments place them into a category distinct from other companies and closer to some functions, like the postal service, that the State has traditionally undertaken.

Second, governments have limited a company’s right to exclude when that company is a public accommodation. This concept—related to common-carrier law—applies to companies that hold themselves out to the public but do not “carry” freight, passengers, or communications. It also applies regardless of the company’s market power.

[B.] Internet platforms of course have their own First Amendment interests, but regulations that might affect speech are valid if they would have been permissible at the time of the founding. The long history in this country and in England of restricting the exclusion right of common carriers and places of public accommodation may save similar regulations today from triggering heightened scrutiny—especially where a restriction would not prohibit the company from speaking or force the company to endorse the speech. See Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC (1994) (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980). There is a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner.

[1.] In many ways, digital platforms that hold themselves out to the public resemble traditional common carriers. Though digital instead of physical, they are at bottom communications networks, and they “carry” information from one user to another. A traditional telephone company laid physical wires to create a network connecting people. Digital platforms lay information infrastructure that can be controlled in much the same way. And unlike newspapers, digital platforms hold themselves out as organizations that focus on distributing the speech of the broader public. Federal law dictates that companies cannot “be treated as the publisher or speaker” of information that they merely distribute.

The analogy to common carriers is even clearer for digital platforms that have dominant market share. Similar to utilities, today’s dominant digital platforms derive much of their value from network size. The Internet, of course, is a network. But these digital platforms are networks within that network. The Facebook suite of apps is valuable largely because 3 billion people use it. Google search—at 90% of the market share—is valuable relative to other search engines because more people use it, creating data that Google’s algorithm uses to refine and improve search results. These network effects entrench these companies. Ordinarily, the astronomical profit margins of these platforms—last year, Google brought in $182.5 billion total, $40.3 billion in net income—would induce new entrants into the market. That these companies have no comparable competitors highlights that the industries may have substantial barriers to entry.

To be sure, much activity on the Internet derives value from network effects. But dominant digital platforms are different. Unlike decentralized digital spheres, such as the e-mail protocol, control of these networks is highly concentrated. Although both companies are public, one person controls Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg), and just two control Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin). No small group of people controls e-mail.

Much like with a communications utility, this concentration gives some digital platforms enormous control over speech. When a user does not already know exactly where to find something on the Internet—and users rarely do—Google is the gatekeeper between that user and the speech of others 90% of the time. It can suppress content by deindexing or downlisting a search result or by steering users away from certain content by manually altering autocomplete results. Grind, Schechner, McMillan, & West, How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 15, 2019. Facebook and Twitter can greatly narrow a person’s information flow through similar means. And, as the distributor of the clear majority [89%] of e-books and about half [42%] of all physical books, Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing.

It changes nothing that these platforms are not the sole means for distributing speech or information. A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable. For many of today’s digital platforms, nothing is.

If the analogy between common carriers and digital platforms is correct, then an answer may arise for dissatisfied platform users who would appreciate not being blocked: laws that restrict the platform’s right to exclude. When a platform’s unilateral control is reduced, a government official’s account begins to better resemble a “government-controlled spac[e].” Common-carrier regulations, although they directly restrain private companies, thus may have an indirect effect of subjecting government officials to suits that would not otherwise be cognizable under our public-forum jurisprudence.

This analysis may help explain the Second Circuit’s intuition that part of Mr. Trump’s Twitter account was a public forum. But that intuition has problems. First, if market power is a predicate for common carriers (as some scholars suggest), nothing in the record evaluates Twitter’s market power. Second, and more problematic, neither the Second Circuit nor respondents have identified any regulation that restricts Twitter from removing an account that would otherwise be a “government-controlled space.”

[2.] Even if digital platforms are not close enough to common carriers, legislatures might still be able to treat digital platforms like places of public accommodation. Although definitions between jurisdictions vary, a company ordinarily is a place of public accommodation if it provides “lodging, food, entertainment, or other services to the public … in general.” Twitter and other digital platforms bear resemblance to that definition. This, too, may explain the Second Circuit’s intuition. Courts are split, however, about whether federal accommodations laws apply to anything other than “physical” locations[, e.g., whether] … Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers websites ….

Once again, a doctrine, such as public accommodation, that reduces the power of a platform to unilaterally remove a government account might strengthen the argument that an account is truly government controlled and creates a public forum. But no party has identified any public accommodation restriction that applies here.

[II.] The similarities between some digital platforms and common carriers or places of public accommodation may give legislators strong arguments for similarly regulating digital platforms. “[I]t stands to reason that if Congress may demand that telephone companies operate as common carriers, it can ask the same of” digital platforms. Turner (opinion of O’Connor, J.). That is especially true because the space constraints on digital platforms are practically nonexistent (unlike on cable companies), so a regulation restricting a digital platform’s right to exclude might not appreciably impede the platform from speaking. See id. (noting restrictions on one-third of a cable company’s channels but recognizing that regulation may still be justified); PruneYard. Yet Congress does not appear to have passed these kinds of regulations. To the contrary, it has given digital platforms “immunity from certain types of suits,” with respect to content they distribute, 47 U.S.C. § 230, but it has not imposed corresponding responsibilities, like nondiscrimination, that would matter here.

None of this analysis means, however, that the First Amendment is irrelevant until a legislature imposes common carrier or public accommodation restrictions—only that the principal means for regulating digital platforms is through those methods. Some speech doctrines might still apply in limited circumstances, as this Court has recognized in the past.

For example, although a “private entity is not ordinarily constrained by the First Amendment,” it is if the government coerces or induces it to take action the government itself would not be permitted to do, such as censor expression of a lawful viewpoint. Consider government threats. “People do not lightly disregard public officers’ thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings against them if they do not come around.” Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963). The government cannot accomplish through threats of adverse government action what the Constitution prohibits it from doing directly. Under this doctrine, plaintiffs might have colorable claims against a digital platform if it took adverse action against them in response to government threats.

{Threats directed at digital platforms can be especially problematic in the light of 47 U.S.C. § 230, which some courts have misconstrued to give digital platforms immunity for bad-faith removal of third-party content. Malwarebytes, Inc. v. Enigma Software Group USA, LLC (2020) (Thomas, J., statement respecting denial of certiorari). This immunity eliminates the biggest deterrent—a private lawsuit—against caving to an unconstitutional government threat.

For similar reasons, some commentators have suggested that immunity provisions like § 230 could potentially violate the First Amendment to the extent those provisions pre-empt state laws that protect speech from private censorship. See Volokh, Might Federal Preemption of Speech-Protective State Laws Violate the First Amendment? The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason, Jan. 23, 2021. According to that argument, when a State creates a private right and a federal statute preempts that state law, “the federal statute is the source of the power and authority by which any private rights are lost or sacrificed.” Railway Employees v. Hanson (1956); accord, Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Assn. (1989).}

But no threat is alleged here. What threats would cause a private choice by a digital platform to “be deemed … that of the State” remains unclear. And no party has sued Twitter. The question facing the courts below involved only whether a government actor violated the First Amendment by blocking another Twitter user. That issue turns, at least to some degree, on ownership and the right to exclude.

[III.] The Second Circuit feared that then-President Trump cut off speech by using the features that Twitter made available to him. But if the aim is to ensure that speech is not smothered, then the more glaring concern must perforce be the dominant digital platforms themselves.

As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms. The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions. This petition, unfortunately, affords us no opportunity to confront them.

.

12 thoughts on “End Of Day Ethics, 4/7/2021: “Ick,” Ethics, And Law

  1. Happy Birthday to Grace!
    Justice Thomas’ analysis should be sufficient to show legislators the path to effectively regulate social media “platforms” that presume to censor speech with which they simply disagree. I hold no illusions that they will do so in an expedient manner.

    • Justice Thomas is throwing a shot across their cybermedia bow letting them know they need to reconsider their actions because Congress will act and the courts will do it for them. AT&T anyone?

      jvb

  2. Happy birthday to Grace, although I don’t know her.

    1. That ranks right up there with Lena Dunham and her description of molesting her sister when they were both little. I’m sure almost all of us did things as kids that were very wrong, to the point they should never be talked about outside the family and not too much inside it either. The thing is, most of us did them because we didn’t know better: curious four-year-olds with pants down and dress up where it’s not appropriate, inappropriate touching of self or others, etc. If talking about that or reading about it makes you squirm or shudder, as it’s making me uncomfortable writing about it, then that’s good, it means you’re mature enough to have functioning ethics alarms. I don’t know if the fact that Louis C.K. joked about that to a roaring audience speaks worse of him, or of them.

    2. Major League sports has had non-functional ethics alarms through and through for probably decades. The league just wants to preserve its privileged place, the owners just want to preserve their profits, and the players just want to maximize their money and time in the spotlight (which is finite). If they can get it by saluting as the armed forces march onto the field and jets fly over, they’ll do it, and if they can get it by putting color first, wokeness second and country last, they’ll do that too.

    3. True, but until the behavior of social media starts hurting both parties equally, no one is going to be able to do anything about it, just as no one can really do anything about the behavior of the mainstream media. The Democratic Party has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by regulating it, while the GOP has everything to gain and very little to lose by doing the same. The fact of the matter is that neither party is particularly concerned with being fair or even doing what’s best for the country over all. Both parties are VERY concerned with getting in power and staying in power. If one party can do it by partnering with a media who is 90% on their side already, that’s good. If that party can do it more by partnering with the social media that 95% of this country has come to rely on and telling them “you promote the news that’s favorable to us and squelch the news that’s not and we’ll let you stay a monopoly” that’s even better. Maybe eventually the courts will say that’s unconstitutional, for a panoply of reasons including the First Amendment and anti-trust laws, for starters. However, it takes time for things like that to work their way through the courts. In the meantime, the left is already spreading the message that the First Amendment (which is, after all, a creation of dead white slaveowning men) needs to be limited to avoid the harm that the spread of misinformation. At the same time they are hoping that, by the time anything like this reaches SCOTUS, they will have been in power long enough to change the makeup of the court either by replacing dying or retiring conservative justices who try and fail to run out the clock with RBG clones, or by expanding the court and stacking it with a few more Sonia Sotomayors. Either way, they’ll be counting on that new court to see it their way and say it’s perfectly ok for private industry to partner with government (just not to decide who it will or won’t serve) and that it’s time someone took the pruning shears to the First Amendment

  3. It is a dark, dark dark place in this country’s history when Clarence Thomas is considered by anyone to be the acme of legal reasonableness on any subject .
    I must have been alone in my want to put ‘Uncle’ in front of his name, though I latter amended that to ‘sick perverted uncle’.
    As i stated earlier, impalement is the least of their worries.

    • Pure bigotry and bias, and nothing else. How many opinions and dissents by Thomas have you read? You may be the exception, but most Thomas haters only know what they have been told.

      And as guidance for future comments, if you want to stay here…ad hominem attacks without substance are not welcome. Criticize the substance of what Thomas wrote—that’s useful. Making Uncle Tom references just shows you to be an asshole.

    • That is unfair and stupid. If you can cite to a Thomas opinion that supports your contention that he is an unreasonable and not a serious justice, then do that. I disagree with some of Bader-Ginsburg opinions but I would never say she did not have a keen legal mind and a clear judicial policy. Same with Renquist, Scalia, Brennan, Black, etc.

      jvb

    • “I must have been alone in my want to put ‘Uncle’ in front of his name…”

      Nah, there are lots of other racist assholes in the world, so you don’t need to feel lonely.

  4. And as we bid farewell to April 7 and good morning to April 8 [not around here, we aren’t doing that; you’re a day late by that reckoning], I want to wish my wonderful, kind, talented and tolerant wife of 40 years a happy birthday. I owe everything to her.

    Everything? I wonder if your mother would have concurred if consulted.

    … our legal system and its British predecessor …

    There is no such “British predecessor”, and there never has been. There is English Law and there is Scots Law, but those are different in very material ways (hint: desuetude of laws). And let us not speak of Jude Law.

  5. You better suck up to Grace; she has the brick.

    The digital robber-barons need to be brought to heel. They are arguably more powerful and dangerous than their historic predecessors, as they try for near-monopolistic control not only of commerce, but of information and thought. Justice Thomas’ thoughts are a good start in defining the problem and possible paths to solutions that build on existing law.

    The financial industry should be included in any examination as well. Anecdote: Last night I attempted to use a Chase Bank card to place an online order for some firearms parts with a company that had “Arms” in its name. The charge was rejected, though there is no reason why it should have been. Another bank’s card (Barclay’s) processed the sale. A few minutes later, I ordered very similar items from another company with no obvious “tell” in its name, used the Chase card, and the Chase system let that one through. Shades of Obama’s “Operation Chokepoint”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.