"Fairness," RNC-Style, for Your Voice Mail?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Courtesy of a left-wing news aggregator comes disappointing news from the regulatory arena. The Republican National Committee has thrown its weight behind a proposal that would basically allow "organizations" to turn your cell phone's voice mail box into a spam folder:

In a comment filed with the FCC on Friday, the RNC said it felt the telecom agency should clear the way for organizations -- including, apparently, itself -- to auto-dial directly to voicemail inboxes with prerecorded pitches. Failing to permit the practice, the RNC warned, could threaten the First Amendment rights of political groups.

"Political organizations like the RNC use all manner of communications to discuss political and governmental issues and to solicit donations -- including direct-to-voicemail messages," the RNC told the FCC. "The Commission should tread carefully so as not to burden constitutionally protected political speech without a compelling interest. [bold added]
Despicably, the RNC is pretending this is a free speech issue when it is, in fact, one of property rights and the right to contract.

The right to freedom of speech is the most important right protected by the government. Without it, there would be no means of changing the course of our government for the better by rational persuasion. A close second is property rights, without which there would be no way for anyone to find an audience outside the range of his own voice. The fact that there is a government agency that regulates communication technology is bad enough since it violates property rights and the right to contract. And, yes, as the FCC once also did through the "Fairness" Doctrine, such an agency can also violate freedom of speech. This it does any time it tells the owner of any communication channel or device what to use it for (other than not to violate the rights of others, say, by fraud). To that extent, the RNC is correct, but please keep reading.

The right to free speech is not the same as the right to a forum. I will defend your right to proselytize whatever you wish, but I will not tolerate you doing so in my living room, against my wishes. Hold your camp meeting elsewhere: I have no power to stop you, nor should I. Whether the FCC is exercising what Ayn Rand once called "censorship-by-displeasure" at broadcast license renewal time or is mandating that phone carriers open up the voicemails of paying customers to a flood of unwanted ads, it is making someone subsidize the transmission of someone else's free speech. Indeed, the fact that anyone has to worry about whether it will permit voicemail ads indicates that property rights (at a minimum) are not being protected. That is exactly the opposite of what government is supposed to be doing.

This is nothing new. Some years ago, some conservatives were spotted pushing for "fairness" in internet search results. At least that time, no one was pretending that this was a push in the direction of liberty. This time, abuse of government power is being presented as if it is a step towards liberty. Indeed, under a free system, some carriers might offer plans, such a reduced rate for customers who are willing to accept such ads. But that would be entirely between carrier and customer by right. In no way should it be up to some third party whether the voice mail box you are paying for is free from political ads, inundated with them, or anywhere in between. This is what is so disappointing about the RNC's recommendation.

The RNC stands to gain a captive audience by taking advantage of a state of affairs it ought to be helping overturn. (It adds insult to injury to call the method of ringlessly spamming a voice mail box "unobtrusive" (to whom?), particularly since many people need one to conduct their daily business.) That is, on top of the technological difficulties robocalls present, government protection of property rights in telecommunications is not what it should be. (And part of that is wrongly subsumed by FCC regulations or the threat of regulation.) The proper stand of the RNC would be to acknowledge that this should not be subject to government regulation, and insist on the FCC treating "ringless" voice mail messages as calls under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act until such time as the agency is abolished or better legal protection for the property rights of phone companies and their customers can be implemented.

The last time I checked, I didn't sign my cell phone contract so I could pay to receive a bunch of unwanted calls and messages. (And call me crazy, but I bet you didn't, either.) We did it so we could communicate with others. Purposely calling others at random and without their consent is a form of trespassing. Rather than treating the right to have a phone and use it as one sees fit as a favor, Republicans should recognize those as the rights they are, and go about protecting them.

-- CAV

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