(This post first appeared on the CIS website, here)
To sum up the previous post: under Article 12 of the Constitution, fundamental rights can be enforced only against the State, or State-like entities that are under the functional, financial and administrative control of the State. In the context of net neutrality, it is clear that privately-owned ISPs do not meet the exacting standards of Article 12. Nonetheless, we also found that the Indian Supreme Court has held private entities, which do not fall within the contours of Article 12, to an effectively similar standard of obligations under Part III as State organizations in certain cases. Most prominent among these is the case of education: private educational institutions have been required to adhere to standards of equal treatment which are identical in content to Article 14, even though their source lies elsewhere. If, therefore, we are to impose obligations of net neutrality upon private ISPs, a similar argument must be found.
I will suggest that the best hope is by invoking the free speech guarantee of Article 19(1)(a). To understand how an obligation of free speech might operate in this case, let us turn to the case of Marsh v. Alabama, an American Supreme Court case from 1946.
Marsh v. Alabama involved a “company town”. The “town” of Chickasaw was owned by a private company, the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. In its structure it resembled a regular township: it had building, streets, a sewage system, and a “business block”, where stores and business places had been rented out to merchants and other service providers. The residents of the “town” used the business block as their shopping center, to get to which they used the company-owned pavement and street. Highway traffic regularly came in through the town, and its facilities were used by wayfarers. As the Court noted:
“In short the town and its shopping district are accessible to and freely used by the public in general and there is nothing to distinguish them from any other town and shopping center except the fact that the title to the property belongs to a private corporation.”
Marsh, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, arrived in Chickasaw with the intention of distributing religious literature on the streets. She was asked to leave the sidewalk, and on declining, she was arrested by the police, and charged under an anti-trespassing statute. She argued that if the statute was applied to her, it would violate her free speech and freedom of religion rights under the American First Amendment. The lower Courts rejected her argument, holding that since the street was owned by a private corporation, she had no constitutional free speech rights, and the situation was analogous to being invited into a person’s private house. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower Courts, and found for Marsh.
Four (connected) strands of reasoning run through the Supreme Court’s (brief) opinion. First, it found that streets, sidewalks and public places have historically been critically important sites for dissemination and reception of news, information and opinions, whether it is through distribution of literature, street-corner oratory, or whatever else. Secondly, it found that private ownership did not carry with it a right to exclusive dominion. Rather, “the owners of privately held bridges, ferries, turnpikes and railroads may not operate them as freely as a farmer does his farm. Since these facilities are built and operated primarily to benefit the public and since their operation is essentially a public function, it is subject to state regulation.” Thirdly, it noted that a large number of Americans throughout the United States lived in company towns, and acted just as other American citizens did, in their duties as residents of a community. It would therefore be perverse to deny them rights enjoyed by those who lived in State-municipality run towns. And fourthly, on balance, it held that the private rights of property-owners was subordinate to the right of the people to “enjoy freedom of press and religion.”
No one factor, then, but a combination of factors underlie the Court’s decision to impose constitutional obligations upon a private party. It mattered that, historically, there have been a number of spaces traditionally dedicated to public speech: parks, squares and streets – whose public character remained unchanged despite the nature of ownership. It mattered that individuals had no feasible exit option – that is, no other place they could go to in order to exercise their free speech rights. And it mattered that free speech occupied a significant enough place in the Constitutional scheme so as to override the exclusionary rights that normally tend to go with private property.
The case of the privately-owned street in the privately-owned town presents a striking analogy when we start thinking seriously about net neutrality. First of all, in the digital age, the traditional sites of public discourse – parks, town squares, streets – have been replaced by their digital equivalents. The lonely orator standing on the soap-box in the street corner now tweets his opinions and instagrams his photographs. The street-pamphleteer of yesteryear now updates his Facebook status to reflect his political opinions. Specialty and general-interest blogs constitute a multiplicity of town-squares where a speaker makes his point, and his hearers gather in the comments section to discuss and debate the issue. While these examples may seem frivolous at first blush, the basic point is a serious one: the role of opinion formation and transmission that once served by open, publicly accessible physical infrastructure, held – in a manner of speaking – in public trust by the government, is now served in the digital world, under the control of private gatekeepers. To that extent, it is a public function, undertaken in public interest, as the Court held in Marsh v. Alabama.
The absence of an exit option is equally important. The internet has become not only a space of exchanging information, but it has become a primary – non-replaceable source – of the same. Like the citizens of Chickasaw lacked a feasible alternative space to exercise their public free speech rights (and we operate on the assumption that it would be unreasonably expensive and disruptive for them to move to a different town), there is now no feasible alternative space to the internet, as it exists today, where the main online spaces are owned by private parties, and access to those spaces is determined by gatekeepers – which are the ISPs.
The analogy is not perfect, of course, but there is a case to be made that in acting as the gatekeepers of the internet, privately-owned ISPs are in a position quite similar to the corporate owners of they public streets Company Town.
In the last post, we saw how it is possible – constitutionally – to impose public obligations upon private parties, although the Court has never made its jurisprudential foundation clear. Here, then, is a thought: public obligations ought to be imposed when the private entity is providing a public function and/or when the private entity is in effectively exclusive control of a public good. There is an argument that ISPs satisfy both conditions. Of course, we need to examine in detail how precisely the rights of free expression are implicated in the ISP context. That is the subject for the next post.