(This post first appeared on the CIS blog, here)
In the modern State, effective exercise of free speech rights is increasingly dependent upon an infrastructure that includes newspapers, television and the internet. Access to a significant part of this infrastructure is determined by money. Consequently, if what we value about free speech is the ability to communicate one’s message to a non-trivial audience, financial resources influence both who can speak and, consequently, what is spoken. The nature of the public discourse – what information and what ideas circulate in the public sphere – is contingent upon a distribution of resources that is arguably unjust and certainly unequal.
There are two opposing theories about how we should understand the right to free speech in this context. Call the first one of these the libertarian conception of free speech. The libertarian conception takes as given the existing distribution of income and resources, and consequently, the unequal speaking power that that engenders. It prohibits any intervention designed to remedy the situation. The most famous summary of this vision was provided by the American Supreme Court, when it first struck down campaign finance regulations, in Buckley v. Valeo: “the concept that government may restrict the speech of some [in] order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.” This theory is part of the broader libertarian worldview, which would restrict government’s role in a polity to enforcing property and criminal law, and views any government-imposed restriction on what people can do within the existing structure of these laws as presumptively wrong.
We can tentatively label the second theory as the social-democratic theory of free speech. This theory focuses not so much on the individual speaker’s right not to be restricted in using their resources to speak as much as they want, but upon the collective interest in maintaining a public discourse that is open, inclusive and home to a multiplicity of diverse and antagonistic ideas and viewpoints. Often, in order to achieve this goal, governments regulate access to the infrastructure of speech so as to ensure that participation is not entirely skewed by inequality in resources. When this is done, it is often justified in the name of democracy: a functioning democracy, it is argued, requires a thriving public sphere that is not closed off to some or most persons.
Surprisingly, one of the most powerful judicial statements for this vision also comes from the United States. In Red Lion v. FCC, while upholding the “fairness doctrine”, which required broadcasting stations to cover “both sides” of a political issue, and provide a right of reply in case of personal attacks, the Supreme Court noted:
“[Free speech requires] preserv[ing] an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee… it is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here.”
What of India? In the early days of the Supreme Court, it adopted something akin to the libertarian theory of free speech. In Sakal Papers v. Union of India, for example, it struck down certain newspaper regulations that the government was defending on grounds of opening up the market and allowing smaller players to compete, holding that Article 19(1)(a) – in language similar to what Buckley v. Valeo would hold, more than fifteen years later – did not permit the government to infringe the free speech rights of some in order to allow others to speak. The Court continued with this approach in its next major newspaper regulation case,Bennett Coleman v. Union of India, but this time, it had to contend with a strong dissent from Justice Mathew. After noting that “it is no use having a right to express your idea, unless you have got a medium for expressing it”, Justice Mathew went on to hold:
“What is, therefore, required is an interpretation of Article 19(1)(a) which focuses on the idea that restraining the hand of the government is quite useless in assuring free speech, if a restraint on access is effectively secured by private groups. A Constitutional prohibition against governmental restriction on the expression is effective only if the Constitution ensures an adequate opportunity for discussion… Any scheme of distribution of newsprint which would make the freedom of speech a reality by making it possible the dissemination of ideas as news with as many different facets and colours as possible would not violate the fundamental right of the freedom of speech of the petitioners. In other words, a scheme for distribution of a commodity like newsprint which will subserve the purpose of free flow of ideas to the market from as many different sources as possible would be a step to advance and enrich that freedom. If the scheme of distribution is calculated to prevent even an oligopoly ruling the market and thus check the tendency to monopoly in the market, that will not be open to any objection on the ground that the scheme involves a regulation of the press which would amount to an abridgment of the freedom of speech.”
In Justice Mathew’s view, therefore, freedom of speech is not only the speaker’s right (the libertarian view), but a complex balancing act between the listeners’ right to be exposed to a wide range of material, as well as the collective, societal right to have an open and inclusive public discourse, which can only be achieved by preventing the monopolization of the instruments, infrastructure and access-points of speech.
Over the years, the Court has moved away from the majority opinions in Sakal Papers and Bennett Coleman, and steadily come around to Justice Mathew’s view. This is particularly evident from two cases in the 1990s: in Union of India v. The Motion Picture Association, the Court upheld various provisions of the Cinematograph Act that imposed certain forms of compelled speech on moviemakers while exhibiting their movies, on the ground that “to earmark a small portion of time of this entertainment medium for the purpose of showing scientific, educational or documentary films, or for showing news films has to be looked at in this context of promoting dissemination of ideas, information and knowledge to the masses so that there may be an informed debate and decision making on public issues. Clearly, the impugned provisions are designed to further free speech and expression and not to curtail it.”
LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah is even more on point. In that case, the Court upheld a right of reply in an in-house magazine, “because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…” This goes even further than Justice Mathew’s dissent in Bennett Coleman, and the opinion of the Court in Motion Picture Association, in holding that not merely is it permitted to structure the public sphere in an equal and inclusive manner, but that it is a requirementof Article 19(1)(a).
We can now bring the threads of the separate arguments in the three posts together. In the first post, we found that public law and constitutional obligations can be imposed upon private parties when they discharge public functions. In the second post, it was argued that the internet has replaced the park, the street and the public square as the quintessential forum for the circulation of speech. ISPs, in their role as gatekeepers, now play the role that government once did in controlling and keeping open these avenues of expression. Consequently, they can be subjected to public law free speech obligations. And lastly, we discussed how the constitutional conception of free speech in India, that the Court has gradually evolved over many years, is a social-democratic one, that requires the keeping open of a free and inclusive public sphere. And if there is one thing that fast-lanes over the internet threaten, it is certainly a free and inclusive (digital) public sphere. A combination of these arguments provides us with an arguable case for imposing obligations of net neutrality upon ISPs, even in the absence of a statutory or regulatory obligations, grounded within the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech and expression.