Think you have the right to speak freely via cellphones, websites and social media? Well, the companies that provide you with access to the Internet don't.
The framers drafted the First Amendment as a check on government authority - not corporate power. But whether we're texting friends, sharing photos on Facebook, or posting updates on Twitter, we're connecting with each other and the Internet via privately controlled networks.
And the owners of these networks are now twisting the intent of the First Amendment to claim the right to control everyone's online information.
Right before the Fourth of July, Verizon filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that expressed this intent in no uncertain terms. The brief was part of the telecom company's bid to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's Net Neutrality rules, which prohibit carriers from blocking or discriminating against Internet users' content.
In the brief, Verizon argues that the First Amendment gives the company the right to serve as the Internet's editor-in-chief.
The First Amendment "protects those transmitting the speech of others, and those who ‘exercise editorial discretion' in selecting which speech to transmit and how to transmit it," the company's attorneys wrote. "In performing these functions, broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.' Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others."
By "content" Verizon means all digital communications that cross its wires, from photographs of your cousin's backyard barbeque to YouTube videos of human rights violations in Syria.
Verizon filed its brief quietly just before the July Fourth holiday, but it has caught the attention of the Internet freedom community like a skunk under the back porch.
This is not the first time Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have suggested that they have a First Amendment right to stifle speech online. AT&T argued in 2010 that its role is similar to that of an editor who selects content and speaks - and that it is not merely a conduit for the communications of others.
This defense of corporate censorship is no idle threat but a pretext for a full-scale takeover of the Internet - a move that first requires killing off any consumer protections that stand in the way.