Net neutrality is back in the news. It’s been a minute, so in case you forgot, some broadband providers want to speed up high traffic services (e.g. Netflix), creating a tiered model of delivery speed. In turn, proponents of net neutrality have lobbied the FCC to classify broadband companies as “common carriers,” requiring that all Internet traffic receive equal treatment (i.e., equal speed of delivery).

In light of overwhelming public support for net neutrality, conflicting with strong lobbies from broadband companies, the FCC is still working towards a solution. Some of this work was leaked last week, revealing a sort of hybrid plan, in which broadband companies could sometimes establish “fast lanes” for service providers, but only when they deem it is “just and reasonable” (whatever “just and reasonable” means).

Whitney Erin Boesel does a fantastic job laying out the policy and delineating a strong argument in support of Open Internet. I want to take a bit of a simpler approach, and address one issue which underlies the debate in its entirety: the relationship between speech and money.

What role does money play in free speech?

Proponents of net neutrality criticize Internet deregulation for its coupling of money and speech. Those with more money get a greater proportion of the attention economy. Those with less money get a lesser proportion of the attention economy. That is, one can purchase louder, broader, and more penetrating speech, at the expense of those with fewer resources.

Opponents of net neutrality, however, appeal to the free market and the moral goal of “winning” within this market. Taking a greater proportion of the attention economy is a result of successful business practices, and therefore not only fair, but morally superior under capitalist logic. That is, share in the market economy earns the right to greater share in the attention economy.

As evidenced by the vast public support for a neutral Internet (see link above), citizens overwhelmingly opine with the former. That is, the American public understands speech and money as diametrically opposed. They believe that policies should prevent share in the market economy from determining share in the attention economy. Voice should not depend on Wallet Size.

And yet, those who oppose regulations have precedent on their side, though from an unexpected source: campaign finance. In 2010 the Supreme Court struck down regulations which limited corporate campaign contributions, and further deregulated campaign finance in 2014. In both cases, they argued that limiting campaign contributions equated to limiting free speech. Here is Chief Justice John Roberts on the 2014 case:

Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.

If money is speech, then the poor have the softest voices. A deregulated Internet extends this logic, and cultural logic is what is at stake. The maintenance of net neutrality would exist in tension with the SCOTUS election campaign decision, maintaining a battleground on which the speech-money relationship remains fraught. Net non-neutrality, in whatever form, would combine with the SCOTUS decision, tipping the cultural scales in a sharply capitalistic direction; A direction in which the economic system drives the political system, and rights are things to be earned, bought, and sold.

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