If you’re an on-line poker player, a fan of the Premier League, or someone who’d like to visit Cuba, you probably already know this. Most people, though, aren’t aware that America censors the Internet. Lawyers tend to believe that a pair of Supreme Court cases, Reno v. ACLU (1997) and Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004), permanently interred government censorship of the Net in the U.S. Not so.
In a new paper, Orwell’s Armchair (forthcoming in the University of Chicago Law Review), I argue that government censors retain a potent set of tools to block disfavored on-line content, from using unrelated laws (like civil forfeiture statutes) as a pretext to paying intermediaries to filter to pressuring private actors into blocking. These methods are not only indirect, they are less legitimate than overt, transparent regulation of Internet content. In the piece, I analyze the constraints that exist to check such soft censorship, and find that they are weak at best. So, I argue, if we’re going to censor the Internet, let’s be clear about it: the paper concludes by proposing elements of a prior restraint statute for on-line content that could both operate legitimately and survive constitutional scrutiny.
Jerry Brito of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center kindly interviewed me about the issues the article raises for his Surprisingly Free podcast. It’s worth a listen, even though my voice is surprisingly annoying.
Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.