Erika D. Smith

Irrational conservatives think they’re being censored — and it’s muddying the fight for net neutrality

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, speaks about a his bill to restore net neutrality regulations in California during a news conference in May.
Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, speaks about a his bill to restore net neutrality regulations in California during a news conference in May. TNS

Most of the time, California is on the right side of history. But every now and then, things get a little confusing.

Such is the case with net neutrality.

Sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk right now is a bill from state Sen. Scott Wiener that would restore those Obama-regulations, which required internet service providers to treat all online content equally. In California at least, Comcast and AT&T, for example, would again be forbidden from blocking or slowing access to certain websites and apps, and the telecom giants would once again be regulated like public utilities.

“This is basic consumer protections, protecting small and midsized business, protecting labor unions and anyone else who relies on the internet,” the San Francisco Democrat said of his Senate Bill 822.

Wiener is right. And Brown should sign the bill. No one should have to pay Comcast, which owns MSNBC, more money to livestream rival CNN. And no one should have to fork over more cash to AT&T, which owns Time Warner, to watch Netflix. Having the free and open internet that comes along with net neutrality is as much an ideal, as it is public policy.

But here is where things get confusing.

Now it seems Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, whose Federal Communications Commission overturned net neutrality in the first place, want a return to at least the concept of the regulations, but with a decidedly ideological, California-hating bent.

In recent weeks, Trump has been grousing about the supposed “censorship” of right-wing content — read, conspiracy theories and propaganda — on social media.

And so, Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently suggested, with a straight face, that the federal government should take over Twitter and Facebook to regulate them like, you guessed it, public utilities.

“There’s a thought that given the enormity of these corporations, and this is a public square today,” she said. “This is the equivalent of what we used to see in the old town square was people with a bullhorn. And so could there be a movement to treat them more like public utilities, so they have some quasi-government oversight of these entities?”

From Fox News’ mouth to the Trump administration’s ears.

On Tuesday, Ajit Pai, the very same chairman of the FCC who made it his mission to scrap Obama’s net neutrality regulations, called for new “obligations” to make Facebook, Twitter and Google’s parent Alphabet disclose more about how they operate.

“We need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations,” Pai wrote in a post on Medium. He admitted he’s against regulating the companies like public utilities, but wants government officials to “thoughtfully explore” the issues.

And on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would meet with state attorneys general this month to discuss whether social media companies are “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas,” and whether they “may have harmed competition,” which some have taken to mean antitrust action is coming against the California tech giants.

The irony, right?

The Trump administration is just fine with having a free and open, regulated internet, as long as it means social media companies must treat real news and fake news equally. No snubbing of the latest bunch of vile baloney from InfoWars’ propagandist Alex Jones. Never mind that Twitter just permanently suspended him.

None of this, of course, solves the much larger and far more confusing problem of how to ensure Americans have access to accurate information online, while also protecting the internet as a proverbial town square that’s an unbiased haven for free speech.

Silicon Valley executives have been reluctant — to put it mildly — to be the ones to find that balance. They want the billions of dollars that come with being mass distributors of news and information, but don’t want to be the arbiters of truth.

In testimony this week before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey repeatedly sidestepped questions about actions they’ve taken to remove false information from their platforms. That led at least two senators to threaten new regulations.

Meanwhile, in California, there are two bills awaiting Gov. Brown’s signature. One would make it illegal to use bots to trick people into buying something or voting a certain way. Another would create a team to study the sharing of misinformation on social media and draft a plan to mitigate it.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told Sandberg and Dorsey. “Where we go from here is an open question.”

Wherever it is, I don’t think net neutrality will save us.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith.