Montana’s Public Service Commissioner (PSC) for District 1 wants the legislature to give oversight of Big Tech censors who operate as utilities to the PSC, helping to protect his constituents from viewpoint discrimination
[Randy Pinocci] The year 2020 will be remembered for many reasons. It was a year of trouble, tumult, and hardship. It was, by and large, a year that will be remembered only because most want to forget it and move on to a happier tomorrow.
But even more notable than all of these events, the social unrest that accompanied them, and their ensuing fall-out, one tragedy of 2020 seems sure to follow America into 2021 and even decades to come. The year 2020 should be written in the history books as the Year of Censorship, in which Big Tech decided to employ muzzling policies that make the draconian information-control programs of Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping pale in comparison. No nation on Earth, from Third-World despot regimes in North Korea to Red China, has proven itself as ambitiously focused on controlling information as our Technocratic overlords such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, or Apple (just to name a few).
In the dystopian novels of the mid-twentieth century, authors such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley envisioned a world in which the government censored media. But in our dystopian present, the media is censoring the government. Their attacks on President Donald J. Trump, effectively silencing his ability to speak to the American people (even his campaign’s email service was canceled) is the mark of tyranny, even though it’s done in the name of private business rather than public service. As yesterday’s bombshell report from Project Veritas revealed on hidden audio, Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter) has promised to extend their censorship policies regarding Trump to millions of more Americans. This, no doubt, will include thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of Montana voices. It should make no difference to us that speech is being censored in the name of corporatism rather than government; despotism is not confined to government buildings.
As Montana’s Public Service Commissioner for District 1, my job has always been to – first and foremost – protect the rate-payer. I work directly for the people of my district to help ensure that utility companies do right by the taxpayer and rate-payer, within the confines of the law and common decency. What is good for business is not always good for the customer, and when inequity exists between the two, the Public Service Commission is tasked as the gatekeeper for things like rate hikes that will negatively impact the consumer.
The people of Montana, as with every state, must ultimately decide what to do with social media companies who have received the same protections from the government as utilities – like the type overseen by the Public Service Commission – but who act as content publishers. Currently, Big Tech is having its cake and eating it, too, when it comes to being absolved from liability (like a utility company) but enjoying the right to censor viewpoints.
Let me explain the dilemma:
A public utility – like power, phone, or rail – provides a service to the public and does not discriminate for any reason, under the threat of law. If someone uses power to grow marijuana in a grow-house, uses the phone to issue a death threat to the president, or uses rail infrastructure to transport contraband, these utilities are not held liable for how customers use their services. Should these companies discriminate, they would run afowl of protections enshrined under the law to prevent it.
A publisher – like that at the local newspaper – does not enjoy immunity from liability. They can be sued for libel, slander, or harms done by their publication. Because these companies are not immune (because they are a publisher, and not a utility) to such lawsuits, they vigorously censor content. However, publishers also enjoy bias (Lee Enterprises, which owns many Montana papers like the Billings Gazette, is a good example of such bias). Their editorial bias comes at the price of liability immunity, just as utilities are forbidden bias, but enjoy liability immunity.
However, Big Tech outlets like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Google, and Apple are currently enjoying the liability immunity given to utilties, but are censoring people like is the right of publishers. This is not good for the consumer, who is left without recourse when Big Tech censors their views but allows their customers to be slandered, libeled, and harmed by others.
Various states are looking into the best ways to stop such Big Tech censorship. For example, Texas Attorney General, Bill Paxton, has announced the state will take action against Big Tech censors and has issued a ‘Civil Investigations Demand’ to inquire if they broke the law by banning the free speech platform, Parler. A North Dakota bill (HB1144) has been proposed by six Republican lawmakers that will allow its residents to sue Big Tech companies for censorship. Most notably, more than 30 states have filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Big Tech companies that are guilty of viewpoint discrimination.
Meanwhile, smaller tech companies are also fighting back. An Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Idaho made national news for restricting their customer’s access to Twitter and Facebook in response to these two companies banning POTUS from their platforms, in a tit-for-tat approach to censorship (they also serve parts of Washington, including Spokane, where their decision was not terribly popular).
However, in the latter case, an ISP shutting down access to a website on the Internet is troublesome in its own right. Even as a Republican and unashamed Trump supporter, I would prefer that no censorship happen to anyone, ever and that includes limiting access to Facebook and Twitter.
Whether we like it or not, censorship is growing in the United States. I have heard from countless constituents who have been blocked or banned from speaking freely. And while it is the business of private companies to censor whoever they want, they should not be able to do so while receiving the same protections as public utilities.
And while its debatable as to whether or not social media access should be limited under the current law, it should not be debatable that people have a right to a free and open Internet. While Big Tech companies like Apple have throttled and killed the viability of their competitors (like Parler), they are also working hand-in-hand with totalitarian regimes (consider Apple’s partnership with Red China) to stifle free expression there.
I plan on continuing to protect the interest of the taxpayer by lobbying the Montana legislature to pass protections for the Montana people to ensure a free Internet in the Big Sky State. It is my belief that because Big Tech companies are operating with the same protections as public utilities, that until their liabilties are removed, they should be treated as public utilities and fall under the ospices of the Public Service Commission. This means that standing between taxpayers and Big Tech is the PSC, which will ensure that viewpoint discrimination is not tolerated within our state by Internet Service Providers and Big Tech companies.
Keep in mind, the Public Service Commission began for the sake of Railroad Regulation, before electricity was a utility in Montana. The purpose of that was to ensure that railroads weren’t treating customers punitively or brokering deals that would benefit some more than others, delivering some goods to certain merchants but not others. This purpose of the PSC still exists, and it’s to maintain fairness for the consumer.
I’m announcing, in capacity only within my role as a private citizen, the creation of the Free Speech Investigatory Taskforce (FSIT) which will evaluate current state law with the free speech rights of our citizenry in view. The FSIT will review current law and determine the feasibility to provide regulatory oversight to Internet Service Providers and Big Tech corporations through the Public Service Commission. Montana does not countenance censorship – whether of conservatives or liberals or anyone in between.
Montana, like every state, requires robust trade in the Marketplace of Ideas, where ideas and beliefs are traded with one another freely. It’s only here – in the free exchange of ideas and opinions – that good ideas can thrive and bad ones can die, as the capitalistic laws of Supply and Demand are applied to thoughts, notions, ideas, and opinions. Censorship prevents this open and honest discussion and creates the very type of intellectual Black Market in which misinformation, rumor, and fake news thrives.
I am now seeking participation in the FSIT among business leaders, thought leaders, clergy, journalists, and concerned citizens on both sides of the ideological aisle – both Democrats and Republicans – who value free speech in an age of Cancel Culture. Surely an open and free Internet is something that all Montanans can support. If Big Tech can ban President Trump today, it can ban you tomorrow. If they desire to purge the Marketplace of Ideas of conservatives today, they can purge it of liberals tomorrow. We all have a vested interest in keeping Montana the Last, Best Place – even for the Internet.
Let me be clear; this will require grassroots help to get these measures passed. We need your help. And furthermore, we need other states to take note and make similar measures in their own governments. As a freedom-loving people, we cannot allow the Technocrats to censor our fellow citizens.
[Editor’s Note: This op-ed was provided by Randy Pinocci and sent as an exclusive to Montana Daily Gazette]