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Pigou’s Plumber: Regulation as a Discovery Process

Scholarship Abstract Standard accounts of why we have administrative agencies do little to account for those agencies’ ability to generate new information that can inform the . . .


Standard accounts of why we have administrative agencies do little to account for those agencies’ ability to generate new information that can inform the regulatory process. Even expertise-based understandings of the administrative state limit the role of agencies to gathering information; and prevailing understandings of the administrative state view agencies as engaged in a policy-development exercise checked by theories of political accountability. This is unfortunate, because, for the same reasons that Congress turns to agencies to regulate in complex policy domains, agencies are typically in the best position to generate and make productive use of information that can inform the regulatory process and help Congress to accomplish its intended legislative goals.

This article offers a new account of how we can—and should—think about agencies’ use of information in the regulatory process: regulation as a discovery process. Drawing from economic understandings of how information is produced and used in both regulation and markets, it argues that using the regulatory process to generate information and ensuring that that information is both captured and productively used to improve regulations should be a priority for administrative law. In so doing, it contributes to a growing literature that argues for more experimentation in regulation and offers an account of the administrative state that is divergent from the interest group and presidential administrative models. Specific applications of these ideas are considered. These include how viewing regulation as a discovery process can resolve tensions in the Major Questions Doctrine and the use of an Executive Order to treat regulations as data-generating natural experiments.

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Illinois Is Not as Blue as We Think. Gerrymandering Is the Problem.

Popular Media Everyone knows Illinois is a blue state. The governor’s offce, the state House, the state Senate, the Chicago mayor’s office, the state Supreme Court, Cook . . .

Everyone knows Illinois is a blue state. The governor’s offce, the state House, the state Senate, the Chicago mayor’s office, the state Supreme Court, Cook County government and so on are all in the hands of Democrats. Of the 19 people who represent Illinois in Washington, 16 are Democrats.

Read the full piece here.

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Recent Challenges to the FTC’s Constitutionality

TL;DR tl;dr Background: Created by Congress in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has employed in-house administrative adjudications for more than a century. The agency’s constitutionality . . .


Background: Created by Congress in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has employed in-house administrative adjudications for more than a century. The agency’s constitutionality was challenged early in its existence, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1935 Humphrey’s Executor decision. Federal courts have, in the years since, been hesitant to invalidate an agency that has been functioning without issue for decades. 

But… Recent rulings in Seila (2020) and Axon (2023) have raised questions about the extent to which the Supreme Court would still recognize the agency’s legitimacy. In Seila, the Court held that Humphrey’s Executor applies only when an agency “do[es] not wield substantial executive powers.” In Axon, it held that federal courts can entertain constitutional challenges even while an administrative adjudication is pending. 

Such rulings have paved the way for challenges to the FTC’s constitutionality. Most notably, Meta filed a challenge in November 2023 after the FTC sought to use administrative adjudication to modify a 2020 consent decree. Amgen brought a similar challenge in response to merger proceedings, as did Walmart during anti-fraud proceedings. Six primary arguments have been raised against the FTC’s constitutionality.



By statute, the president of the United States may remove commissioners of the FTC only “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” Humphrey’s Executor upheld this process, because the FTC was not deemed to exercise executive power. 

But the FTC has changed dramatically over the past century. In the 1970s, Congress broadened its authority to pursue injunctive relief in federal court and to seek civil penalties, which would typically be considered executive functions. The agency now functions primarily as an enforcer of laws, and much more rarely exercises its quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative powers.

In short, there is a question whether the FTC, in its current form and operations, violates the constitutional separation of powers.


The FTC’s administrative-adjudication process has also raised constitutional questions. FTC staff may, following a preliminary screening, be authorized to investigate a potential violation of the law. That investigation, in turn, can lead commissioners to vote on whether to issue a complaint.

If it is not settled, the complaint is heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ) who, under recently revised agency process, issues a “recommended decision” to the commission. Previously, the ALJ would issue an “initial decision” that would stand unless the FTC or defendant sought review. 

The FTC then decides whether to accept, revise, or wholly replace the recommended decision with one of its own.  Serving as both a prosecutor and judge may violate the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.


Congress enabled the FTC to decide whether to pursue adjudication in federal courts or within its own administrative process. But under the Constitution’s nondelegation doctrine, when Congress delegates any of its legislative powers, it must provide an “intelligible principle” for an agency to use that power. Some of the recent challenges argue there is no such principle governing which avenue the FTC pursues, rendering the delegation of powers unconstitutional. 


Among the broad powers conferred to the federal courts under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution is exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate private rights. But the FTC has been granted authority to hold administrative adjudications that can result in the deprivation of private rights (e.g., deprivation of property). Such proceedings may be unconstitutional. 


The Seventh Amendment secures the right to jury trial whenever civil penalties exceed $20. This typically applies to deprivation of property rights, as well. But the FTC’s administrative adjudication does not provide for a jury trial. 


Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, mergers exceeding certain thresholds must be notified to both the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the FTC. The agencies then follow a so-called “clearance” process to determine which will review the transaction. But the process is largely arbitrary, with some matters allocated based on one agency having more relevant experience, and some on a taking-turns basis.

Unlike the FTC, the DOJ can only challenge transactions before Article III courts, rather than in-house administrative proceedings. These alternative procedures have meaningful procedural and substantive differences. If that leads to disparate treatment, it may violate both the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses.

For more on this issue, see Daniel Gilman’s Law360 piece “Why Challenges To FTC Authority Are Needed.”

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

ICLE Amicus in Ohio v Google

Amicus Brief Interest of Amicus[1] The International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) is a nonprofit, non-partisan global research and policy center aimed at building the intellectual . . .

Interest of Amicus[1]

The International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) is a nonprofit, non-partisan global research and policy center aimed at building the intellectual foundations for sensible, economically grounded policy. ICLE promotes the use of law and economics methodologies and economic learning to inform policy debates and has longstanding expertise evaluating law and policy.

ICLE has an interest in ensuring that First Amendment law promotes the public interest by remaining grounded in sensible rules informed by sound economic analysis. ICLE scholars have written extensively in the areas of free speech, telecommunications, antitrust, and competition policy. This includes white papers, law journal articles, and amicus briefs touching on issues related to the First Amendment and common carriage regulation, and competition policy issues related to alleged self-preferencing by Google in its search results.


Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” See Our Approach to Search, Google (last accessed Jan. 18, 2024), https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/our-approach/. Google does this at zero price, otherwise known as free, to its users. This generates billions of dollars of consumer surplus per year for U.S. consumers. See Avinash Collis, Consumer Welfare in the Digital Economy, in The Global Antitrust Instit. Report on the Digital Economy (2020), available at https://gaidigitalreport.com/2020/08/25/digital-platforms-and-consumer-surplus/.

This incredible deal for users is possible because Google is what economists call a multisided platform. See David S. Evans & Richard Schmalensee, Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms 10 (2016) (“Many of the biggest companies in the world, including… Google… are matchmakers… [M]atchmakers’ raw materials are the different groups of customers that they help bring together. And part of the stuff they sell to members of each group is access to members of the other groups. All of them operate physical or virtual places where members of these different groups get together. For this reason, they are often called multisided platforms.”). On one side of the platform, Google provides answers to queries of users. On the other side of the platform, advertisers, pay for access to Google’s users, and, by extension, subsidize the user-side consumption of Google’s free services.

In order to maximize the value of its platform, Google must curate the answers it provides in its search results to the benefit of its users, or it risks losing those users to other search engines. This includes both other general search engines and specialized search engines that focus on one segment of online content (like Yelp or Etsy or Amazon). Losing users would mean the platform becomes less valuable to advertisers.

If users don’t find Google’s answers useful, including answers that may preference other Google products, then they can easily leave and use alternative methods of search. Thus, there are real limitations on how much Google can self-preference before the incentives that allowed it to build a successful platform unravel as users and therefore advertisers leave. In fact, it is highly likely that users of Google search want the integration of direct answers and Google products, and Google provides these results to the benefit of its users. See Geoffrey A. Manne, The Real Reason Foundem Foundered, at 16 (ICLE White Paper 2018), https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/manne-the_real_reaon_foundem_foundered_2018-05-02-1.pdf (“[N]o one is better positioned than Google itself to ensure that its products are designed to benefit its users”).

Here, as has been alleged without much success in antitrust cases, see United States v. Google, LLC, 2023 WL 4999901, at *20-24 (D. D.C. Aug. 4, 2023) (granting summary judgment in favor of Google on antitrust claims of self-preferencing in search results), the alleged concern is that Google preferences itself at the expense of competitors, and to the detriment of its users. See Complaint (“Google intentionally structures its Results Pages to prioritize Google products over organic search results.”). Ohio asks the court to declare Google a common carrier and subject it to a nondiscrimination requirement that would prevent Google from prioritizing its own products in search results.

The problem, of course, is the First Amendment. Federal district courts have consistently found that the First Amendment protects how providers structure search results. See, e.g., e-ventures Worldwide, LLC v. Google, Inc., 2017 WL 2210029 (M.D. Fla., Feb. 8, 2017); Jian Zhang v. Baidu.com Inc., 10 F. Supp. 3d 433 (S.D. N.Y., Mar. 28, 2014); Langdon v. Google, Inc., 474 F. Supp. 2d 622 (D. Del. 2007); Search King, Inc. v. Google Tech., Inc., 2003 WL 21464568 (W.D. Okla., May 27, 2003).

While Ohio and their amici argue that Google should be considered a common carrier, and thus be subject to a lower standard of review for First Amendment purposes, there is no legal basis for such a conclusion.

First, common carriage is a poor fit for Google’s search product. Courts have rejected monopoly power or being “affected with a public interest” as the proper prerequisites for common carrier status. Ohio, like other jurisdictions, has found that the “fundamental test of common carriage is whether there is a public profession or holding out to serve the public.” Girard v. Youngstown Belt Ry. Co., 134 Ohio St. 3d 79, 89 (2012) (emphasis added). See also Loveless v. Ry. Switching Serv., Inc., 106 Ohio App. 3d 46, 51 (1995) (“The distinctive characteristic of a common carrier is that he undertakes to carry for all people indifferently and hence is regarded in some respects as a public servant.”) (internal quotations omitted). Google simply does not carry information in an undifferentiated way comparable to a railroad carrying passengers or freight. It is rather a service that explicitly differentiates and prioritizes answers to queries by providing individualized responses based upon location, search history, and other factors.

Second, as mentioned above, Google’s search results are protected by the First Amendment, and simply “[l]abeling” Google “a common carrier… has no real First Amendment consequences.” Denver Area Educ. Telecomm. Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 825 (1996) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part). As this court stated, it is the nondiscrimination requirement sought by Ohio that is subject to First Amendment scrutiny, not the common carriage label itself. See Motion to Dismiss Opinion at 16. And any purported nondiscrimination requirement should be subject to strict scrutiny, as such a requirement would constrain Google’s own speech in the form of its carefully tailored search results, and not simply the speech of others.


1. Common Carriage Is a Poor Fit as Applied to Google’s Search Product

There is a long history of common carriage regulation in this country. But there has not always been universal agreement on what constitutes the defining feature of a common carrier, with proposed justifications ranging from monopoly power (or natural monopoly) to being affected by the public interest. Over time, though, courts and commentators, including Ohio courts, have agreed that common carriage is primarily about holding oneself out to serve the public indiscriminately.

Simply put, Google Search does not hold itself out to, nor does it actually serve, the public indiscriminately by carrying information, either from users or from other digital service providers. It provides individualized and tailored answers to users’ queries, which may include Google products, direct answers, or general information its search crawlers have learned about other service providers on the Internet.

A. Common Carriage Is Not About Monopoly Power or the Public Interest, It’s About Holding Oneself Out to Serve the Public Indiscriminately

In its complaint, Ohio makes much of Google’s market share in search. See Complaint para. 19-32. Amici also argue that the “immense market dominance” of Google makes it a common carrier analogous to telegraphs or telephones. See Claremont Amicus at 6. Similarly, both Ohio and amici argue that Google’s search results are affected by a public interest. See Complaint at 40; Claremont Amicus at 3-4.

Whatever the market share of Google search, common law courts, including those of Ohio, do not find monopoly power to be a part of the definition of common carriage. For instance, the presence of competition for innkeepers did not mean they were not subject to requirements to serve. See Joseph William Singer, No Right to Exclude: Public Accommodations and Private Property, 90 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1283, 1319-20 (1996) (“On the monopoly rationale, it is important to note that none of the antebellum cases bases the duty to serve on the fact of monopoly. Indeed, the presence of competition was never a reason for denying the duty to serve in the antebellum era. In many towns, there were several innkeepers and cities like Boston had dozens of innkeepers. Yet, no lawyer, judge, or treatise writer ever suggested that innkeepers in cities like Boston should be exempt from the duty to serve the public.”). Nor does the presence of monopoly necessarily lead to common carriage treatment under the law. See Blake Reid, Uncommon Carriage, at 25, 76 Stan. L. Rev., forthcoming (2024) (“[F]irms holding effective monopolies or oligopolies in a wide range of sectors, including pharmacies and drug stores, managed healthcare providers, office supply stores, eyeglass sellers, airlines, alcohol distribution, and even candy are not widely regarded or legally treated as common carriers.”). Accordingly, Ohio does not define common carriage in relation to monopoly power. Cf. Kinder Morgan Cochin LLC v. Simonson, 66 N.E. 1176, 1182 (Ohio Ct. App. 5th Dist. Ashland County 2016) (failing to mention monopoly as part of the definition of common carrier).

Moreover, while older cases and commentators cite the “affected with a public interest” standard, courts have moved away from it because of its indeterminacy. See Biden v. Knight First Amendment Inst., 141 S. Ct. 1220, 1223 (2021) (Thomas, J., concurring) (this definition is “hardly helpful, for most things can be described as ‘of public interest.’”). See also Christopher S. Yoo, The First Amendment, Common Carriers, and Public Accommodations: Net Neutrality, Digital Platforms, and Privacy, 1 J. of Free Speech L. 463, 468-69 (2021).

Instead, the definition of common carriage under Ohio law is defined as holding itself “out to the public as ready and willing to serve the public indifferently.” See Kinder Morgan Cochin, 66 N.E. at 1182; Girard v. Youngstown Belt Ry. Co., 134 Ohio St. 3d 79, 89 (2012); Loveless v. Ry. Switching Serv., Inc., 106 Ohio App. 3d 46, 51 (1995).

B. Google Does Not Offer an Undifferentiated Search Product to Its Users

With this definition in mind, Google is not a common carrier. Google does not offer an undifferentiated service to its users like a pipeline (like in Kinder Morgan Cochin) or railroad (like in Girard or Loveless), or even like a mall offering an escalator to customers (like in May Department Stores Co. v. McBride, 124 Ohio St. 264 (1931)). Nor does it offer to “communicate or transmit” information of “their own design and choosing” to users. See FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., 440 U.S. 689, 701 (1979) (defining common carrier services in the communications context). Instead, it offers a tailored search result to its users. See Complaint at paras. 17-18 (noting that search results depend on location); How Search work with your activity, Google (last accessed Jan. 18, 2024), https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/10909618 (“When you search on Google, your past searches and other info are sometimes incorporated to help us give you a more useful experience.”). This is not a common carrier in the communications context. See Midwest Video, 440 U.S. at 701 (“A common carrier does not make ‘individualized decisions, in particular cases, whether on what terms to deal.’”) (quoting Nat’l Ass’n of Reg. Util. Comm’rs v. FCC, 525 F.2d 630, 641 (D.C. Cir. 1976)).

For instance, if a user searches for restaurants, Google’s algorithm may not only take into consideration the location of the user, but also whether the user previously clicked on particular options when running a similar query, or even if the user visited a particular restaurant’s website. While the results are developed algorithmically, this is much more like answering a question than it is transporting a private communication between two individuals like a telephone or telegraph.

Importantly, users often receive a different result even for the same search. See Why your Google Search results might differ from other people, Google (last accessed Jan. 18, 2024), https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/12412910 (“You may get the same or similar results to someone else who searches on Google Search. But sometimes, Google may give you different results based on things like time, context, or personalized results.”). Google is clearly making “‘individualized’ content- and viewpoint-based decisions” when it comes to search results. Cf. Moody v. NetChoice, 34 F.4th 1196, 1220 (11th Cir. 2022) (quoting Midwest Video, 440 U.S. at 701).

While the court emphasized at the motion to dismiss stage that a reasonable factfinder could find Google offers to hold itself out to the public in its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and universal,” see MTD Opinion at 7, this does not “change [its] status to common carrier[]… unless [it] undertake[s] to carry for all people indifferently.” Loveless, 106 Ohio App. 3d at 52. As the above facts demonstrate, there is no basis for finding that Google search offers an undifferentiated product to its users. The court should find Google is not a common carrier under Ohio law.

II. Google’s Search Results Are Protected by the First Amendment from Common Carriage Nondiscrimination Requirements

Ohio ultimately seeks to restrict the ability of Google to favor its own products in its search results. But this runs into a real constitutional problem: search results are protected by the First Amendment.

Moreover, as this court has previously found, the First Amendment scrutinizes not the label of common carriage, but the burdens which come with it. Here, the nondiscrimination requirement Ohio asks for is what is at issue.

This nondiscrimination requirement is inconsistent with the First Amendment. While this court thought it should be subject to intermediate scrutiny, the First Amendment requires strict scrutiny when speech is compelled. The cases cited by the court are inapposite when a speaker is delivering its own message, i.e. search results, rather than simply hosting speech of others.

A. Federal District Court Cases Establish Google Search Results Are Protected by the First Amendment

While no appellate court has considered the issue, several federal district courts have recognized search engines have a First Amendment interest in their search results. Some decisions have framed the results themselves as speech. Others have considered the issue as one of editorial judgment. But under either approach, Google Search results are protected by the First Amendment.

For instance, in Jian Zhang v. Baidu.com, 10 F. Supp. 3d 433 (S.D. N.Y. Mar. 28, 2014), the court found that the application of a New York public accommodations law to a Chinese search engine that “censored” pro-democracy speech is inconsistent with the right to editorial discretion. The court found that “there is a strong argument to be made that the First Amendment fully immunizes search-engine results from most, if not all, kinds of civil liability and government regulation.” Id. at 438.  The court noted that “the central purpose of a search engine is to retrieve relevant information from the vast universe of data on the Internet and to organize it in a way that would be most helpful to the searcher. In doing so, search engines inevitably make editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information (for example, on the first page of the search results or later).” Id.  Other courts have similarly found search engines have a right to editorial discretion over their results. See also e-ventures Worldwide, LLC v. Google, Inc., 2017 WL 2210029, at *4 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 2017); Langdon v. Google, Inc., 474 F. Supp. 2d 622, 629-30 (D. Del. 2007).

In this sense, Google’s search results are analogous to the decisions of what to print made by the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974), or the parade organizer in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995).

At least one court has found that search results themselves are protected opinions. In Search King Inc. v. Google Technology, Inc., 2003 WL 21464568, at *4 (WD. Okla. May 27, 2003), the court found that search results “are opinions—opinions of the significance of particular web sites as they correspond to a search query. Other search engines express different opinions, as each search engine’s method of determining relative significance is unique.”

Under this line of reasoning, Google’s responses to queries are opinions directing users to what it thinks is the best answer given all the information it has on the user, her behavior, and her preferences. This is in itself protected speech. Cf. Eugene Volokh & Donald M. Falk, Google: First Amendment Protection for Search Results, 8 J. L. Econ. & Pol’y 883, 884 (2012) (“[S]earch engines are speakers… they convey information that the search engine has itself prepared or compiled [and] they direct users to material created by others… Such reporting about others’ speech is itself constitutionally protected speech.”).

In sum, the First Amendment protects Google’s search results.

B. A Common Carriage Label Does Not Change First Amendment Analysis

Amici argued that because Google is a common carrier, the nondiscrimination requirement is merely an economic regulation that is not subject to heightened First Amendment scrutiny. See Claremont Amicus at 17. But the issue here is not simply the label of common carriage, it is the regulatory scheme sought by Ohio. Cf. Denver Area Educ. Telecomm. Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 825 (1996) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part) (“Labeling leased access a common carrier scheme has no real First Amendment consequences.”); MTD Opinion at 16 (“As for the State’s request for declaratory relief, merely declaring or designating Google Search to be a common carrier does not, of itself, violate the First Amendment or infringe on Google’s constitutional speech rights…. It is the burdens and obligations accompanying that designation that implicate the First Amendment.”).

In other words, when reviewing the nondiscrimination requirement sought by Ohio, the labeling of this as a common carriage obligation does not matter under the First Amendment.

C. The Nondiscrimination Requirement Should be Subject to Strict Scrutiny

Ohio and amici have characterized the nondiscrimination requirement that comes with common carriage as a content-neutral requirement to host the speech of others. See MTD Opinion at 16; Claremont Amicus at 15, 17. This court agreed that this was possible at the motion to dismiss stage. But the remedy sought is not content-neutral, nor is it dealing purely with the speech of others. As a result, it should be subject to strict scrutiny.

This court found that a “restriction of this type must satisfy intermediate scrutiny” as a “content-neutral restriction on speech.” MTD Opinion at 16. The court compared the situation to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994). But the nondiscrimination requirement is clearly content-based.

Ohio is asking this court to enjoin Google from prioritizing its own products in its search results. See Complaint at para. 77. The only way to know whether Google is doing that is to consider the content of its search results. See, e.g.Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., 576 U.S. 155, 163 (2015) (“Government regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.”). The idea or message expressed here is that Google’s products would be a better answer to an inquiry than another. By definition, the nondiscrimination requirement is a content-based regulation of speech, and must therefore be subject to strict scrutiny.

Nor is this just an issue of the speech of others. This court stated that “infringing on a private actor’s speech by requiring that actor to host another person’s speech does not always violate the First Amendment.” MTD Opinion at 17. The court cited PruneYard Shopping Ctr. v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 (1980), Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2007), and Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969). But none of these cases deals with a situation analogous to applying nondiscrimination requirements to Google’s search results.

Here, as explained above, Google’s search results are themselves protected speech. Collectively, each search result is Google’s opinion of the best set of answers, in the optimal order, to questions provided by users to Google. Requiring Google to present different results, or results in a different order, or with different degrees of prioritization would impermissibly compel Google to speak, similar to requiring car owners to display license plates saying “Live Free or Die,” see Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), or forcing a student to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, see West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. V. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). It is, in short, impossible to require “Google [to] carr[y] all responsive search results on an equal basis,” Complaint at 5, without compelling it to speak in ways it does not choose to speak.

Even if Google’s interest in its search results is characterized as editorial discretion over others’ speech rather its own speech (a dubious distinction), this would still be distinguishable from the above cases. Google is clearly identified with its results by users, unlike the shopping center with its customers in PruneYard or the law schools with military recruiters in FAIR. See Complaint at paras. 48-50 (alleging that Google was built on expectations from users that the search algorithm was in some way neutral). This is especially the case when Google is, as alleged, prioritizing its own products in search results. See id. at paras. 64-70. Google clearly believes, and its users appear to agree, that these products are what its users want to see. See Complaint at 2 (“Google Search is perceived to deliver the best search results…”). Otherwise, those users could just use another service. Cf. Zhang, 10 F. Supp. 3d at 441 (a user dissatisfied with search results can just use another search engine).

Notably, this stands in contrast to the court’s characterization of the speech at issue. See MTD Opinion at 19-20 (“When a user searches a speech by former President Donald Trump on Google Search and that speech is retrieved by Google with a link to the speech on YouTube, no rational person would conclude that Google is associating with President Trump or endorsing what is seen in the video.”). It is not the content of the links that users associate with Google, but the search results themselves, which includes the order in which each link is presented, the presentation of certain prioritized results in a different format, and the exclusion or deprioritization of certain results Google thinks the user will not find relevant. A search engine is more than a “passive receptacle or conduit” for the speech of others; the “choice of material” and how it is presented in its search results “constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment.” Tornillo, 418 U.S. at 258.

In sum, the reasons for subjecting must-carry provisions in Turner to intermediate scrutiny do not apply here. First, the nondiscrimination requirement sought by Ohio is not content-neutral; indeed, it is precisely Ohio’s dissatisfaction with the specific content Google provides that impels its proposed law. Cf. Turner, 512 U.S. at 653-55 (emphasizing the content-neutrality of the must-carry requirements). Second, Google must alter its message in its search results due to the regulation, as it is expressing a clear opinion that its own products are the best answer—an answer with which Google is identified and which distinguishes it from its search engine competitors. Cf. id. at 655-56 (finding the must-carry requirements would not force cable operators to alter their own messages or identify them with the speech they carry). Third, Google does not have the ability to prevent its users from accessing information, whether from other general search engines, specialized search engines, or just typing a website into the browser. Cf. Turner, 512 U.S. at 656 (“When an individual subscribes to cable, the physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives the cable operator bottleneck, or gatekeeper control over most (if not all) of the television programming that is channeled into the subscriber’s home… A cable operator, unlike other speakers in other media, can thus silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.”). Absent these countervailing justifications for intermediate scrutiny in Turner, Ohio’s nondiscrimination requirement must be subject to strict scrutiny.

Finally, while it is true that economic regulation like antitrust law can be consistent with the First Amendment, see Claremont Amicus at 17 (citing Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 20), that does not mean every legal restriction on speech so characterized is constitutional. For instance, in Associated Press, the Supreme Court found the organization in violation of antitrust law, but in footnote 18 disclaimed the power to “compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their ‘reason’ tells them should not be published.” Associated Press, 316 U.S. at 20, n. 18. The Court echoed this in Tornillo to argue that the remedy sought by Florida’s right-to-reply law was unconstitutional government compulsion of speech that would violate the newspaper’s right to editorial discretion. See Tornillo, 418 U.S. at 254-58. Restricting Google’s right to editorial discretion over its search results is similarly unconstitutional.


Ohio’s attempted end-run of competition law and the First Amendment by declaring Google a common carrier must be rejected by this court. Google is not a common carrier. And the nondiscrimination requirement requested by Ohio is inconsistent with the First Amendment.

[1] Amicus state that no counsel for any party authored this brief in whole or in part, and that no entity or person other than amicus and its counsel made any monetary contribution toward the preparation and submission of this brief.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Gus Hurwitz on Meta’s Challenge of FTC Constitutionality

Presentations & Interviews ICLE Director of Law & Economics Programs Gus Hurwitz was a guest on The Cyberlaw Podcast, where he discussed Meta’s broadening attack on the constitutionality . . .

ICLE Director of Law & Economics Programs Gus Hurwitz was a guest on The Cyberlaw Podcast, where he discussed Meta’s broadening attack on the constitutionality of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) current structure. Other subjects tackled include South Korea’s law imposing internet costs on content providers, the Biden Federal Communications Commission’s first two months with a majority, the race to 5G, and the FTC’s last-ditch appeal to stop the Microsoft-Activision merger. Audio of the full episode is embedded below.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

ICLE Files Amicus in NetChoice Social-Media Regulation Cases

TOTM Through our excellent counsel at Yetter Coleman LLP, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE ) filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in . . .

Through our excellent counsel at Yetter Coleman LLP, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE ) filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the Moody v. NetChoice and NetChoice v. Paxton cases. In it, we argue that the First Amendment’s protection of the “marketplace of ideas” requires allowing private actors—like social-media companies—to set speech policies for their own private property. Social-media companies are best-placed to balance the speech interests of their users, a process that requires considering both the benefits and harms of various kinds of speech. Moreover, the First Amendment protects their ability to do so, free from government intrusion, even if the intrusion is justified by an attempt to identify social media as common carriers.

Read the full piece here.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Brief of ICLE in Moody v NetChoice, NetChoice v Paxton

Amicus Brief Interest of Amicus[1] The International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) is a nonprofit, non-partisan global research and policy center that builds intellectual foundations for . . .

Interest of Amicus[1]

The International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) is a nonprofit, non-partisan global research and policy center that builds intellectual foundations for sensible, economically grounded policy. ICLE promotes the use of law and economics methodologies and economic learning to inform policy debates and has longstanding expertise evaluating law and policy.

ICLE has an interest in ensuring that First Amendment law promotes the public interest by remaining grounded in sensible rules informed by sound economic analysis. ICLE scholars have written extensively on issues related to social media regulation and free speech. See, e.g., Geoffrey A. Manne, Ben Sperry, & Kristian Stout, Who Moderates the Moderators?: A Law & Economics Approach to Holding Online Platforms Accountable Without Destroying the Internet, 49 Rutgers Computer & Tech. L. J. 26 (2022); Ben Sperry, Knowledge and Decisions in the Information Age: The Law & Economics of Regulating Misinformation on Social-Media Platforms, 59 Gonzaga L. Rev., forthcoming (2023); Br. of Internet Law Scholars, Gonzalez v. Google; Jamie Whyte, Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?, ICLE White Paper (Sep. 2021); Ben Sperry, An L&E Defense of the First Amendment’s Protection of Private Ordering, Truth on the Market (Apr. 23, 2021); Liability for User-Generated Content Online: Principles for Lawmakers (Jul. 11, 2019).


The pair of NetChoice cases before the Court presents the opportunity to bolster the Court’s longstanding jurisprudence on state action and editorial discretion by affirming that the First Amendment applies to Internet speech without disfavor. See Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 870 (1997) (finding “no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied” to the Internet).

The First Amendment protects social media companies’ rights to exercise their own content moderation policies free from government interference. Social media companies are private actors with the same right to editorial discretion over disseminating third-party speech as offline equivalents like newspapers and cable operators. See Manhattan Cmty. Access Corp. v. Halleck, 139 S. Ct. 1921, 1926 (2019); Mia. Herald Publ’g Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974); Turner Broad. Sys. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994).

Consistent with that jurisprudence, the Court should conclude that social media companies are private actors fully capable of taking part in the marketplace of ideas through their exercise of editorial discretion, free from government interference.

Summary of Argument

“The most basic of all decisions is who shall decide.” Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions 40 (2d ed. 1996). Under the First Amendment, the general rule is that private actors get to decide what speech is acceptable. It is not the government’s place to censor speech or to require private actors to open their property to unwanted speech. The market process determines speech rules on social media platforms[2] just as it does in the offline world.

The animating principle of the First Amendment is to protect this “marketplace of ideas.” “The theory of our Constitution is ‘that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.’” United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709, 728 (2012) (quoting Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting)). To facilitate that competition, the Constitution staunchly protects the liberty of private actors to determine what speech is acceptable, largely free from government regulation of this marketplace. See Halleck, 139 S. Ct. at 1926 (“The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment constrains governmental actors and protects private actors….”).

Importantly, one way private actors participate in the marketplace of ideas is through private ordering—by setting speech policies for their own private property, enforceable by common law remedies under contract and property law. See id. at 1930 (a “private entity may thus exercise editorial discretion over the speech and speakers in the forum”).

Protecting private ordering is particularly important with social media. While the challenged laws concern producers of social media content, producers are only a sliver of social media users. The vast majority of social media users are content consumers, and it is for their benefit that social media companies moderate content. Speech, even when lawful and otherwise protected by the First Amendment, can still be harmful, at least from the point of view of listeners. Social media companies must balance users’ demand for speech with the fact that not everyone wants to consume every possible type of speech.

The issue is how best to optimize the benefits of speech while minimizing negative speech externalities. Speech produced on social media platforms causes negative externalities when some consumers are exposed to speech they find offensive, disconcerting, or otherwise harmful. Those consumers may stop using the platform as a result. On the other hand, if limits on speech production are too extreme, speech producers and consumers may seek other speech platforms.

To optimize the value of their platforms, social media companies must consider how best to keep users—both producers and consumers of speech—engaged. Major social media platforms mainly generate revenue through advertisements. This means a loss in user engagement could reduce the value to advertisers, and thus result in less advertising revenue. In particular, a loss in engagement by high-value users could result in less advertising, and that in turn, diminishes incentives to invest in the platform. Optimizing a platform requires satisfying users who are valuable to advertisers.

Major social media platforms have developed moderation policies in response to market demand to protect their users from speech those users consider harmful. This editorial control is protected First Amendment activity.

On the other hand, the common carriage justifications Texas and Florida offer for their restrictions on social media platforms’ control over their own property do not save the States’ impermissible intervention into the marketplace of ideas. Two of the most prominent legal justifications for common carriage regulation—holding one’s property open to all-comers and market power—do not apply to social media companies. Major social media companies require all users to accept terms of service, which limit what speech is allowed. And assuming market power can justify common carriage, neither Florida nor Texas even attempted to make such a finding, making at best mere assertions.

The States’ intervention is more like treating social media platforms as company towns—an outdated approach that this Court should reject as inconsistent with First Amendment doctrine and utterly unsuitable to the Internet Age.


I. Social Media Platforms Are Best Positioned to Optimize Their Platforms To Serve Their Users’ Speech Preferences.

The First Amendment promotes a marketplace of ideas. To have a marketplace of any kind, there must be strong private property rights and enforceable contracts that enable entrepreneurs to discover the best ways to serve consumers. See generally Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital (2000). As full participants in the marketplace of ideas, social media platforms must be free to exercise their own editorial policies and have choice over which ideas they allow on their platforms. Otherwise, there is no marketplace of ideas at all, but either a government-mandated free-for-all where voices struggle to be heard or an overly restricted forum where the government censors disfavored ideas.

The marketplace analogy is apt when considering First Amendment principles because, like virtually any other human activity, speech has both benefits and costs. Like other profit-driven market endeavors, it is ultimately the subjective, individual preferences of consumers that determine how to manage those tradeoffs. The nature of what is deemed offensive is obviously context- and listener-dependent, but the parties best suited to set and enforce appropriate speech rules are the property owners subject to the constraints of the marketplace.

When it comes to speech, an individual’s desire for an audience must be balanced with a prospective audience’s willingness to listen. Formal economic institutions acting in the marketplace must strike the proper balance between these desires and have an incentive to get it right or they could lose consumers. Asking government to make categorical decisions for all of society is substituting centralized evaluation of the costs and benefits of access to communications for the individual decisions of many actors, including property owners who open their property to third party speech. As the economist Thomas Sowell put it, “that different costs and benefits must be balanced does not in itself imply who must balance them?or even that there must be a single balance for all, or a unitary viewpoint (one ‘we’) from which the issue is categorically resolved.” Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions 240 (2d ed. 1996).

Rather than incremental decisions on how and under what terms individuals may relate to one another on a particular platform—which can evolve over time in response to changes in what individuals find acceptable—governments can only hand down categorical guidelines through precedential decisions: “you must allow a, b, and c speech” or “you must not allow x, y, and z speech.”

This freedom to experiment and evolve is vital in the social-media sphere, where norms about speech are in constant flux. Social media users often impose negative externalities on other users through their speech. Thus, social media companies must resolve social-cost problems among their users by balancing their speech interests.

In his famous work “The Problem of Social Cost,” the economist Ronald Coase argued that the traditional approach to regulating externalities was misguided because it overlooked the reciprocal nature of harms. Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, 3 J. L. & Econ. 1, 2 (1960). For example, the noise from a factory is a potential cost to the doctor next door who consequently cannot use his office to conduct certain testing, and simultaneously the doctor moving his office next door is a potential cost to the factory’s ability to use its equipment. In a world of well-defined property rights and low transaction costs, the initial allocation of a right would not matter, because the parties could bargain to overcome the harm in a beneficial manner—i.e., the factory could pay the doctor for lost income or to set up sound-proof walls, or the doctor could pay the factory to reduce the sound of its machines. But in the real world, where there are often significant transaction costs, who has the initial right matters because it is unlikely that the right will get to the highest valued use.

Similarly, on social media, speech that some users find offensive or false may be inoffensive or even patently true to other users. Protecting one group from offensive speech necessarily imposes costs on the group that favors the same speech. There is a reciprocal nature to the harms of speech, much as with other forms of nuisance. Due to transaction costs, it is unlikely that users will be able to effectively bargain to a solution on speech harms. There is a significant difference, though. Unlike the situation of the factory owner and the doctor, social media users are all using the property of social media companies. And those companies are best positioned to—and must be allowed to—balance these varied interests in real-time to optimize their platform’s value in response to consumer demand.

Social media companies are what economists call “multi-sided” platforms. See generally David S. Evans & Richard Shmalensee, Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms (2016). They are for-profit businesses, and the way they generate profits is by acting as intermediaries between users and advertisers. If they fail to serve their users well, those users will abandon the platform. Without users, advertisers would have no interest in buying ads. And without advertisers, there is no profit to be made.

As in any other community, “[i]nteractions on multi-sided platforms can involve behavior that some users find offensive.” David S. Evans, Governing Bad Behavior by Users of Multi-Sided Platforms, 27 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 1201, 1215 (2012). As a result, “[p]eople may incur costs [from] unwanted exposure to hate speech, pornography, violent images, and other offensive content.” Id. And “[e]ven if they are not exposed to this content, they may dislike being part of a community in which such behavior takes place.” Id.

These cases challenge laws that cater to one set of social media users—producers of speech on social media platforms. But social media platforms must be at least as sensitive to their speech consumers. Indeed, the one-percent rule—“a vast majority of user-generated content in any specific community comes from the top 1% of active users”[3]—teaches that speech-consuming users may be even more important because they far outnumber producers. In turn, less intense users are usually the first to leave a platform, and their exit may cascade into total platform collapse. See, e.g., János Török & János Kertész, Cascading Collapse of Online Social Networks, 7 Sci. Rep., art. 16743 (2017).

Social media companies thus need to optimize the value of their platform by setting rules that keep users—mostly speech consumers—sufficiently engaged that there are advertisers who will pay to reach them. Even more, social media platforms must encourage engagement by the right users. To attract advertisers, platforms must ensure individuals likely to engage with advertisements remain active on the platform.[4] Platforms ensure this optimization by setting and enforcing community rules.

In addition, like users, advertisers themselves have preferences social media platforms must take into account. Advertisers may threaten to pull ads if they do not like the platform’s speech-governance decisions. For instance, after Elon Musk restored the accounts of Twitter users who had been banned by the company’s prior leadership, major advertisers left the platform. See Kate Conger, Tiffany Hsu, & Ryan Mac, Elon Musk’s Twitter Faces Exodus of Advertisers and Executives, N.Y. Times (Nov. 1, 2022); Ryan Mac & Tiffany Hsu, Twitter’s US Ad Sales Plunge 59% as Woes Continue, N.Y. Times (Jun. 5, 2013).

Thus, it is no surprise that in the cases of major social media companies, the platforms have set content-moderation standards that restrict many kinds of speech. See generally Kate Klonick, The New Governors: The People, Rules, and Processes Governing Online Speech, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 1598 (2018).

The bottom line is that the market process leaves the platforms themselves best positioned to make these incremental editorial decisions about their users’ preferences on speech, in response to the feedback loop between consumer, producer, and advertiser demand. It should go without saying that social media users do not necessarily want more opportunities to say and hear certain speech. Forcing social media companies to favor one set of users—a fraction of speech producers—by forbidding “viewpoint discrimination” favored by other users is unwarranted and unlawful interference in those companies’ editorial discretion. That interference threatens rather than promotes the marketplace of ideas.

II. The First Amendment Protects Private Ordering of Speech, Including Social Media Platform Moderation Polices.

The First Amendment protects the right of social media platforms to serve the speech preferences of their users through their moderation policies.

The “text and original meaning [of the First and Fourteenth Amendments], as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech.” Halleck, 139 S. Ct. at 1928. The First Amendment’s reach does not grow when private property owners open their property for speech. If such property owners were “subject to First Amendment constraints” and thus “lose the ability to exercise what they deem to be appropriate editorial discretion within that open forum” they would “face the unappetizing choice of allowing all comers or closing the platform altogether.” Id. at 1930. That is, the First Amendment respects—indeed protects—private ordering.

So, while the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to speak (and receive speech) without fear of legal repercussions in most instances, it does not make speech consequence-free, nor does it mandate the carrying of all speech in private spaces.

“Bad” speech has, in fact, long been kept in check via informal means, or what one might call “private ordering.” In this sense, property rights and contract law have long played a crucial role in determining the speech rules of any given space.

For instance, a man would be well within his legal rights to eject a guest from his home for using racial epithets. As a property owner, he would not only have the right to ask that person to leave but could exercise his right to eject that person as a trespasser—if necessary, calling the police to assist him. Similarly, one could not expect to go to a restaurant and yell at the top of her lungs about political issues and expect the venue to abide. A bar hosting an “open mic night” and thus opening itself up to speech is still within its rights to end a performance so offensive it could lead to a loss of patrons. Subject to narrow exceptions, property owners determine acceptable speech on their property and may enforce those rules by excluding those who refuse to comply.

A. Social media platforms are not state actors.

One exception to this strong distinction between state and private action is when a “private entity performs a traditional, exclusive public function.” See Halleck, 139 S. Ct. at 1928. In those cases, there may be a right to free speech that operates against a private actor. See Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).

Proceeding from Marsh, many litigants seize upon this Court’s recent analogizing social media to the “modern public square.” Packingham v. N. Carolina, 137 S. Ct. 1730, 1737 (2017). They argue social media companies are like a company town or town square and so lack the discretion to restrict speech protected by the First Amendment. But cases since Marsh make clear that the state-actor exception is exceptionally narrow.

In Marsh, this Court found that a company town, while private, was a state actor for purposes of the First Amendment. At issue was whether the company town could prevent a Jehovah’s Witness from passing out literature on the town’s sidewalks. The Court noted that “[o]wnership does not always mean absolute dominion. The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it.” Marsh, 326 U.S. at 506. The Court proceeded to balance private property rights with First Amendment rights, determining that, in company towns, the First Amendment’s protections should be in the “preferred position.” See id. at 509.

The Court later extended this finding to shopping centers, finding they were the “functional equivalent” to the business district in Marsh, and thus finding that a shopping center could not restrict peaceful picketing of a grocery story by a local food-workers union. Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza, 391 U.S. 308, 318, 325 (1968).

But the Court began retreating from both Logan Valley and Marsh just a few years later in Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551 (1972), which concerned hand-billing in a shopping mall. Noting the “economic anomaly” that was company towns, the Court said Marsh “simply held that where private interests were substituting for and performing the customary functions of government, First Amendment freedoms could not be denied where exercised in the customary manner on the town’s sidewalks and streets.” Id. at 562 (emphasis added).

Building on Tanner, the Court went a step further in Hudgens v. NLRB, 424 U.S. 507 (1976), reversing Logan Valley and more severely cabining Marsh. Hudgens involved picketing on private property, and the Court concluded bluntly that, “under the present state of the law the constitutional guarantee of free expression has no part to play in a case such as this[.]” Id. at 521. Marsh is now a narrow exception, the Court explained, limited to situations where private property has taken on all attributes of a town. See id. at 516. And following Hudgens, the Court further limited the public-function test to “the exercise by a private entity of powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.” See Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 352 (1974).

Today it is well-established that “the constitutional guarantee of free speech is a guarantee only against abridgment by government, federal or state.” Hudgens, 424 U.S. at 513. Purely private actors—even those who open their property to the public—are not subject to First-Amendment limits on how they use their property.

The Court reaffirmed that rule recently in Halleck, which considered whether a public-access channel operated by a cable provider was a state actor. Summarizing the case law, the Court said the test required more than just a finding that the government at some point exercised the same function or that the function serves the public good. Instead, the government must have “traditionally and exclusively performed the function.” Halleck, 139 S. Ct. at 1929 (emphasis in original).

The Court then found that merely operating as a public forum for speech is not a function traditionally and exclusively performed by the government. And because “[it] is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed,” a private actor providing a forum for speech retains “editorial discretion over the speech and speakers in the forum.” Id. at 1930.

Following this Court’s state-actor jurisprudence, federal courts have consistently found social media companies are not equivalent to company towns and thus not subject to First Amendment constraints. Unlike the company town, where those within their geographical confines have little choice but to deal with them as if they are the government themselves, social media users can simply use alternative means to convey speech or receive it. The Ninth Circuit, for instance, squarely rejected the argument that social media companies fulfill a traditional, public function. See Prager Univ. v. Google, LLC, 951 F.3d 991, 996-99 (9th Cir. 2020). Every federal court to consider whether social media companies are state actors under this theory has found the same. See, e.g., Freedom Watch, Inc. v. Google Inc., 816 F. App’x 497, 499 (D.C. Cir. 2020); Brock v. Zuckerberg, 2021 WL 2650070, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Jun. 25, 2021); Zimmerman v. Facebook, Inc., 2020 WL 5877863 at *2 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 2, 2020); Ebeid v. Facebook, Inc., 2019 WL 2059662 at *6 (N.D. Cal. May 9, 2019); Green v. YouTube, LLC, 2019 WL 1428890, at *4 (D.N.H. Mar. 13, 2019); Nyabwa v. Facebook, 2018 WL 585467, at *1 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 26, 2018); Shulman v. Facebook.com, 2017 WL 5129885, at *4 (D.N.J. Nov. 6, 2017).

B. Social media companies have a right to editorial discretion.

Private actors have the right to editorial discretion that cannot generally be overcome by state action compelling the dissemination of speech. See Mia. Herald Publ’g Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974); Turner Broad. Sys. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994). This is particularly important for private actors whose business is disseminating speech, like newspapers, cable operators, and social media companies.

In Tornillo, the Court struck a right-to-reply statute for political candidates because it “compel[s] editors or publishers to publish that which ‘reason tells them should not be published.’” 418 U.S. at 256. The Court established a general rule that the limits on media companies’ editorial discretion were not defined by government edict but by “the acceptance of a sufficient number of readers—and hence advertisers —to assure financial success; and, second, the journalistic integrity of its editors and publishers.” Id. at 255 (citing Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 412 U. S. 94, 117 (1973)). In other words, the limits on how private entities exercise their editorial discretion comes from the marketplace of ideas itself—the preferences of speech consumers, advertisers, and the property owners—not the government.

The size and influence of social media companies does not shrink Tornillo’s effect. No matter how large the editor or the forum, the government still may not coerce private entities to disseminate speech. See id. at 254 (“However much validity may be found in these arguments [about monopoly power], at each point the implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism .?.?.?If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment.”). Alleged market power is insufficient to justify compelling the dissemination of speech by social media companies.

Turner confirms that market power is irrelevant. There the Court began with “an initial premise: Cable programmers and cable operators engage in and transmit speech, and they are entitled to the protection of the speech and press provisions of the First Amendment.” 512 U.S. at 636. While the Court nonetheless applied intermediate scrutiny, it did so based on technological differences in transmission by newspapers and cable television, and the fact that the law was content-neutral. The level of scrutiny thus turns on “the special characteristics” of transmission, not “the economic characteristics” of the market. Id. at 640.

Returning to Tornillo, the Court reasoned that the law violated the First Amendment by intruding upon the company’s editorial discretion. See 418 U.S. at 258. Like newspapers, social media platforms are “more than a passive receptable for news, comment, and advertising,” as their “choice of material,” their “decisions made as to the limitations on the size and content of the paper” and their “treatment of public issues and public officials—whether fair or unfair—constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment.” Id. Indeed, that exercise of editorial control and judgment is central to a platform’s retention of speech consumers and attraction of advertisers targeting those users, and thus the platform’s continued survival. See supra, pp. ___.

Accordingly, federal courts rightly have called government actions into question when they violate the right of social media platforms to exercise editorial discretion. See NetChoice, LLC v. Bonta, 2023 WL 6135551, at *15 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 18, 2023); O’Handley v. Padilla, 579 F. Supp. 3d 1163, 1186-88 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 10, 2022); see also Murthy v. Missouri, No. 23-411, 2023 WL 6935337, at *2 (U.S. Oct. 20, 2023) (Alito, J., dissenting) (“The injunction applies only when the Government crosses the line and begins to coerce or control others’ [i.e. the social media companies’] exercise of their free-speech [i.e. editorial discretion] rights.”).

Thus, the Fifth Circuit’s claim in Paxton that “the Supreme Court’s cases do not carve out ‘editorial discretion’ as a special category of First-Amendment-protected expression,” 49 F.4th at 463, is demonstrably wrong. The Court has established that private actors have a right to exercise editorial discretion concerning speech on their property. See Halleck (using the phrase “editorial discretion” 11 times). Social media platforms have the same right.

C. Strict scrutiny applies.

As social media companies have a right to editorial discretion, the next question is the level of scrutiny the challenged statutes must satisfy. Strict scrutiny is proper, because social media platforms are much more like the newspapers in Tornillo than the cable companies in Turner.

In Turner, the Court found:

[The] physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives the cable operator bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over most (if not all) of the television programming that is channeled into the subscriber’s home .?.?.?. [U]nlike speaker in other media, [cable operators] can thus silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.

512 U.S. at 656. Social media platforms have no physical control of the connection to the home, and thus no practical ability to exclude competing voices or platforms. The internet architecture simply does not allow them to stop users from using other sites to find speech or speak. Strict scrutiny should apply to SB 7072 and HB 20.

Likewise, compelling social media companies to allow speech contrary to their terms of service is fundamentally different than mandating access for military recruiters in law schools or requiring shopping malls to allow the peaceful exercise of speech in areas held open to the public. Contra Paxton, 49 F.4th at 462-63. In those instances, there was no identification of the venue with the message. See Rumsfeld v. Forum for Acad. & Inst. Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47, 65 (2006); PruneYard Shopping Ctr. v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74, 86-88 (1980).

Here, the moderation decisions of social media companies do have implications for advertisers who do not want their brand associated with certain content. See Jonathan Vanian, Apple, Disney, other media companies pause advertising on X after Elon Musk boosted antisemitic tweet, CNBC (Nov. 17, 2023);[5] Caleb Ecarma, Twitter Can’t Seem to Buck Its Advertisers-Don’t-Want-to-Be-Seen-Next-to-Nazis Problem, Vanity Fair (Aug. 17, 2023);[6] Ryan Mac & Tiffany Hsu, Twitter’s US Ad Sales Plunge 59% as Woes Continue, N.Y. Times (Jun. 5, 2023).[7] Similarly, users will exit if they don’t enjoy the experience of the platform. See Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Twitter seeing ‘record user engagement’? The data tells a different story, ZDNet (Jun. 30, 2023).[8] Speech by social media companies disavowing what is said by some users of their platforms does not prevent advertisers and much of the public from identifying user speech with the platform.

Moreover, both the Florida and Texas laws are discriminate based upon content, as a reviewing court would have to consider what speech is at issue to determine whether a social media company can moderate it. This makes the laws different than those at issue in Turner, and offer an alternative reason they should be subject to strict scrutiny.

Section 230 of the Communications Act does not change this analysis. Contra Paxton, 49 F.4th at 465-66. Section 230 supplements the First Amendment’s protection of editorial discretion by granting “providers and users of an interactive computer service” immunity from (most) lawsuits for speech generated by other “information content providers” on their platforms. See 47 U.S.C. §230(c). The animating reason for Section 230 was to provide “protection for private blocking and screening” by preventing lawsuits over third party content that was left up, see Section 230(c)(1), or over third-party content that was taken down, see Section 230(c)(2). See also Geoffrey A. Manne, Ben Sperry, & Kristian Stout, Who Moderates the Moderators?: A Law & Economics Approach to Holding Online Platforms Accountable Without Destroying the Internet, 49 Rutgers Computer & Tech. L. J. 26, 39-41 (2022). Section 230 encourages social media companies to use their underlying First Amendment rights to editorial discretion. There is no basis for citing it as a basis for restricting such rights.

*  *  *

The challenged Florida and Texas laws treat social media platforms essentially as company towns. But social media platforms simply do not demonstrate the requisite characteristics sufficient to treat them as company towns whose moderation decisions are subject to court review for viewpoint discrimination. Instead, consistent with their economic function, they are private actors with their own rights to editorial discretion protected from government interference.

III. The Justifications for Common Carriage Regulation Do Not Apply to Social Media Companies.

The law and economics principles described above establish a general rule of the First Amendment that private property owners like social media companies have the right, responsibility, and need in the marketplace to moderate speech on their platforms. It makes no more sense to apply common carriage regulation to social media platforms than it does to treat them as company towns subject to the First Amendment.

Both Florida’s SB 7072 and Texas’s HB 20 are designed to restrict the ability of social media companies to exercise editorial discretion on their platforms. Each State justified its law by comparing social media companies to common carriers. Florida’s legislative findings included the statement that social media platforms should be “treated similarly to common carriers.” Act of May 24, 2021, ch. 2021-32, § 1(6), 2021 Fla. Laws 503, 505. Texas’ legislature found that “social media platforms function as common carriers” and “social media platforms with the largest number of users are common carriers by virtue of their market dominance.” Act of Sept. 9, 2021, ch. 3, § (3)–(4), 2021 Tex. Gen. Laws 3904, 3904.

But simply “[l]abeling” a social media platform “a common carrier .?.?.?has no real First Amendment consequences.” Denver Area Educ. Telecomm. Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 825 (1996) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part). And nothing about social media platforms justifies the label in any event: Social media platforms do not hold themselves out to the public as common carriers, and social media platforms lack monopoly power.

A. Social media platforms do not hold themselves out to all comers.

Both the Eleventh Circuit in Moody and the Fifth Circuit in Paxton recognized that one characteristic common carriers share is that they hold themselves out as serving all members of the public without individualized bargaining. See Moody, 34 F.4th 1196, 1220 (11th Cir. 2022); Paxton, 49 F.4th at 469.

Major social media companies, however, do not hold themselves out to the public indiscriminately either for users or the type of speech allowed. Unlike a telephone company or the postal service, both of which carry all private communications regardless of the underlying message, social media companies require all users to accept terms of service dealing specifically with speech in order to use the platform. They also maintain the discretion to enforce their rules as they see fit, both curating and editing speech before presenting it to the world.. As the Eleventh Circuit put it in Moody, social media users “are not freely able to transmit messages ‘of their own design and choosing’ because platforms make—and have always made—‘individualized’ content- and viewpoint-based decisions about whether to publish particular messages or users.” Moody, 34 F.4th at 1220 (quoting FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., 440 U.S. 689, 701 (1979)).

Moreover, the very service that online platforms offer to users, and that users accept, is the moderation of speech in one form or another. Instagram allows users to curate feeds of specialized images, and Twitter does the same for specialized microblogs. Without this core moderation service, the services would be essentially useless to users. By contrast, common carriers do not have as a core part of their service the moderation of speech: any moderation of speech is incidental to operation of the service (e.g. removing unruly passengers).

Judge Srinivasan’s concurring opinion in United States Telecom Association v. FCC, 855 F.3d 381 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (denying rehearing en banc), is instructive on this point. The panel there had denied a petition for review of the FCC’s net neutrality order, which applied common carriage regulation to internet service providers. At the rehearing stage, then-Judge Kavanaugh feared the panel’s opinion would allow the government to “impose forced-carriage or equal-access obligations on YouTube and Twitter.” Id. at 433 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting). Judge Srinivasan sought to allay that fear by explaining: Social media platforms “are not considered common carriers that hold themselves out as affording neutral, indiscriminate access to their platform without any editorial filtering[.]”. Id. at 392 (Srinivasan, J., concurring) (emphasis added). Indeed, even the Internet service providers deemed common carriers there could escape such designation if they acted like social media platforms and exercised editorial discretion and advertised themselves as doing so. See id. at 389-90 (Srinivasan, J., concurring).

Unlike the telegraph, telephone, the postal service, or even email, major social media companies do not hold themselves out to the public as open to all legal speech—they expressly retain their editorial discretion. They have publicly available terms of service that users must agree to before creating profiles that detail what is and is not allowed on their platforms. While common carriers like airlines may be able to eject passengers based upon conduct even where there is a speech element, social media companies retain the right to restrict pure expression that is inconsistent with their community standards. These rules include limitations on otherwise legal speech and disclose that violators may be restricted from use, including expulsion. Br. for Pet’rs, https://netchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/No.‌-22-555_NetChoice-and-CCIAs-Brief-Paxton.pdf, at 4-7.

The Fifth Circuit was wrong to minimize social media platforms’ editorial discretion by comparing their efforts to newspapers curating articles and columns. See Paxton, 49 F.4th at 459-60, 492 (noting that more than 99% of content is not reviewed by a human). Miami Herald did not establish a floor on how much a private actor must exercise editorial discretion in order to be protected by the First Amendment. Nor did it specify that a human must review content rather than a company investing in algorithms to help them moderate content. The Fifth Circuit’s reasoning is essentially a “use it or lose it” theory of the First Amendment, which says if social media companies do not aggressively use their editorial discretion rights, then they can lose them. “That is not how constitutional rights work,” however; the “‘use it or lose it’ theory is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.” U.S. Telecom, 855 F.3d at 429 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting).

Since social media companies do not hold themselves out to the public as open to all speech, they are not common carriers that can somehow be required to carry third party speech contrary to their terms of service.

B. Social media companies lack gatekeeper monopoly power.

Another reason offered for treating social media platforms like common carriers is that some social media companies are alleged to have “dominant market share,” see Biden v. Knight, 141 S. Ct. 1220, 1224 (2021) (Thomas, J., concurring), or in the words of Turner, “gatekeeper” or “bottleneck” market power. See Turner, 512 U.S. at 656.

As shown above, however, Turner is not really about market power but about the unique physical connection that gave cable providers the power to restrict access to content by the flick of a switch. In any case, there is no basis for concluding that social media companies are all monopolists.

A number of major social media companies covered by the Florida and Texas laws are not in any sense holders of substantial market power as measured by share of visits.[9] Neither are companies like reddit, LinkedIn, Tumblr, or Pinterest, who all have even fewer visits. Nonetheless, the challenged laws would apply to such entities based on monthly users at the national level or gross revenue. See Fla. Stat. §501.2041(1)(g)(4) (covered providers must have at least 100 million monthly users or $100 million in gross annual revenue); Tex. Bus. & Com. Code §§ 120.001(1), .002(b) (covered social media platforms have 50 million monthly active users). But raw revenue or user numbers do not show market power. It is, at the very least, market share (i.e., concentration) that could plausibly be instructive—and even then, market power entails a much more complex determination. See, e.g., Brian Albrecht, Competition Increases Concentration, Truth on the Market (Aug. 16, 2023), https://‌truthonthemarket.com/2023/08/16/competition-increases‌-concentration/. As economist Chad Syverson puts it, “concentration is worse than just a noisy barometer of market power. Instead, we cannot even generally know which way the barometer is oriented.” Chad Syverson, Macroeconomics and Market Power: Context, Implications, and Open Questions, 33 J. Econ. Persp. 23, 26 (2019).

Second, there is no legislative finding of market power that would justify either law: just a bare assertion by the Texas legislature that “social media platforms with the largest number of users are common carriers by virtue of their market dominance.” HB 20 § 1(4). That “finding” by the Texas legislature fails to even define a relevant market, let alone establish market shares, or identify any indicia of market power of any players in that market. In then-Judge Kavanaugh’s words, both Florida and Texas failed to “even tr[y] to make a market power showing.” U.S. Telecom, 855 F.3d at 418 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting); see also FTC v. Facebook, 560 F. Supp. 3d 1, 18 (D.D.C. Jun. 28, 2021) (“[T]he FTC’s bare assertions would be too conclusory to plausibly establish market power”).

The Texas legislature’s bare assertion is considerably weaker than the “unusually detailed statutory findings” the Court relied on in Turner, 512 U.S. at 646,[10] and is woefully insufficient to permit reliance on this justification for common-carrier-like treatment under the First Amendment.


The First Amendment protects the marketplace of ideas by protecting private ordering of speech rules. For the foregoing reasons, the Court should reverse the decision of the Fifth Circuit in Paxton and affirm the decision of the Eleventh Circuit in Moody.

[1] Amicus curiae affirms that no counsel for any party authored this brief in whole or in part, and that no entity or person other than amici and their counsel made any monetary contribution toward the preparation and submission of this brief.

[2] Throughout this brief, the term “platform” as applied to the property of social media companies is used in the economic sense, as these companies are all what economists call multisided platforms. See David S. Evans, Multisided Platforms, Dynamic Competition, and the Assessment of Market Power for Internet-Based Firms, at 6 (Coase-Sandor Inst. for L. & Econ. Working Paper No. 753, Mar. 2016).

[3] Valtteri Vuorio & Zachary Horne, A Lurking Bias: Representativeness of Users Across Social Media and Its Implications for Sampling Bias In Cognitive Science, PsyArXiv Preprint at 1 (Feb. 2, 2023); see also, e.g., Alessia Antelmi, et al., Characterizing the Behavioral Evolution of Twitter Users and The Truth Behind the 90-9-1 Rule, in WWW ’19: Companion Proceedings of The 2019 World Wide Web Conference 1035 (May 2019).

[4] “For decades, the 18-to-34 age group has been considered especially valuable to advertisers. It’s the biggest cohort, overtaking the baby boomers in 2015, and 18 to 34s are thought to have money to burn on toys and clothes and products, rather than the more staid investments of middle age.” Ryan Kailath, Is 18 to 34 still the most coveted demographic?, Marketplace.com Dec. 8, 2017), https://www.market‌place.org/2017/12/08/coveted-18-34-year-old-demographic.

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2023/11/17/apple-has-paused-advertising-on-x-after-musk-promoted-antisemitic-tweet.html.

[6] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/08/twitter-advert‌isers-dont-want-nazi-problem.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/05/technology/twitter-ad-sales-musk.html.

[8] https://www.zdnet.com/article/twitter-seeing-record-user-engagement-the-data-tells-a-different-story.

[9] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/265773/market-share-of-the-most-popular-social-media-websites-in-the-us (Facebook at 49.9%, Instagram at 15.85%, X/Twitter at 14.69%, YouTube at 2.29%); https://gs.statcounter.com/social-media-stats/all/‌united-states-of-america (similar numbers).

[10] See also Pub. L. 102-385 § 2(a)(1) (detailing price increases of cable television since rate deregulation, which is inferential evidence of market power); id. § 2(a)(2) (explaining that local franchising regulations and the cost of building out cable networks leave most consumers with only one available option).

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Innovation & the New Economy

A Coasean Analysis of Online Age-Verification and Parental-Consent Regimes

ICLE Issue Brief I.       Introduction Proposals to protect children and teens online are among the few issues in recent years to receive at least rhetorical bipartisan support at . . .

I.       Introduction

Proposals to protect children and teens online are among the few issues in recent years to receive at least rhetorical bipartisan support at both the national and state level. Citing findings of alleged psychological harm to teen users,[1] legislators from around the country have moved to pass bills that would require age verification and verifiable parental consent for teens to use social-media platforms.[2] But the primary question these proposals raise is whether such laws will lead to greater parental supervision and protection for teen users, or whether they will backfire and lead teens to become less likely to use the covered platforms altogether.

The answer, this issue brief proposes, is to focus on transaction costs.[3] Or more precisely, the answer can be found by examining how transaction costs operate under the Coase theorem.

The major U.S. Supreme Court cases that have considered laws to protect children by way of parental consent and age verification all cast significant doubt on the constitutionality of such regimes under the First Amendment. The reasoning such cases have employed appears to apply a Coasean transaction-cost/least-cost-avoider analysis, especially with respect to strict scrutiny’s least-restrictive-means test.

This has important implications for recent attempts to protect teens online by way of an imposed duty of care, mandatory age verification, and/or verifiable parental consent. First, because it means these solutions are likely unconstitutional. Second, because a least-cost-avoider analysis suggests that parents are in best positioned to help teens assess the marginal costs and benefits of social media, by way of the power of the purse and through available technological means. Placing the full burden of externalities on social-media companies would reduce the options available to parents and teens, who could be excluded altogether if transaction costs are sufficiently large as to foreclose negotiation among the parties. This would mean denying teens the overwhelming benefits of social-media usage.

Part II of this brief will define transaction costs and summarize the Coase theorem, with an eye toward how these concepts can help to clarify potential spillover harms and benefits arising from teens’ social-media usage. Part III will examine three major Supreme Court cases that considered earlier parental-consent and age-verification regimes enacted to restrict minors’ access to allegedly harmful content, while arguing that one throughline in the jurisprudence has been the implicit application of least-cost-avoider analysis. Part IV will argue that, even in light of how the internet ecosystem has developed, the Coase theorem’s underlying logic continues to suggest that parents and teens working together are the least-cost avoiders of harmful internet content.

Part V will analyze proposed legislation and recently enacted bills, some of which already face challenges in the federal courts, and argue that the least-cost-avoider analysis embedded in Supreme Court precedent should continue to foreclose age-verification and parental-consent laws. Part VI concludes.

II.     The Coase Theorem and Teenage Use of Social-Media Platforms

A.    The Coase Theorem Briefly Stated and Defined

The Coase theorem has been described as “the bedrock principle of modern law and economics,”[4] and the essay that initially proposed it may be the most-cited law-review article ever published.[5] Drawn from Ronald Coase’s seminal work “The Problem of Social Cost”[6] and subsequent elaborations in the literature,[7] the theorem suggests that:

  1. The problem of externalities is bilateral;
  2. In the absence of transaction costs, resources will be allocated efficiently, as the parties bargain to solve the externality problem;
  3. In the presence of transaction costs, the initial allocation of rights does matter; and
  4. In such cases, the burden of avoiding the externality’s harm should be placed on the lowest-cost avoider, while taking into consideration the total social costs of the institutional framework.

A few definitions are in order. An externality is a side effect of an activity that is not reflected in the cost of that activity—basically, what occurs when we do something whose consequences affect other people. A negative externality occurs when a third party does not like the effects of an action. When we say that such an externality is bilateral, it is to say that it takes two to tango: only when there is a conflict in the use or enjoyment of property is there an externality problem.

Transaction costs are the additional costs borne in the process of buying or selling, separate and apart from the price of the good or service itself—i.e., the costs of all actions involved in an economic transaction. Where transaction costs are present and sufficiently large, they may prevent otherwise beneficial agreements from being concluded. Institutional frameworks determine the rules of the game, including who should bear transaction costs. In order to maximize efficiency, the Coase theorem holds that the burden of avoiding negative externalities should be placed on the party or parties that can avoid them at the lowest cost.

A related and interesting literature focuses on whether the common law is efficient, and the mechanisms by which that may come to be the case.[8] Todd J. Zywicki and Edward P. Stringham argue—contra the arguments of Judge Richard Posner—that the common law’s relative efficiency is a function of the legal process itself, rather than whether judges implicitly or explicitly adopt efficiency or wealth maximization as goals.[9] Zywicki & Stringham find both demand-side and supply-side factors that tend to promote efficiency in the common law, but note that the supply-side factors (e.g., competitive courts for litigants) have changed over time in ways that may result in diminished incentives for efficiency.[10] Their central argument is that the re-litigation of inefficient rules eventually leads to the adoption of more efficient ones.[11] Efficiency itself, they argue, is also best understood as the ability to coordinate plans, rather than as wealth maximization.[12]

In contrast to common law, there is a relative paucity of literature on whether constitutional law follows a pattern of efficiency. For example, one scholar notes that citations to Coase’s work in the corpus of constitutional-law scholarship are actually exceedingly rare.[13] This brief seeks to contribute to the law & economics literature by examining how the Supreme Court appears implicitly to have adopted one version of efficiency—the least-cost-avoider principle—in its First Amendment reviews of parental-consent and age-verification laws under the compelling-government-interest and least-restrictive-means tests.

B.     Applying the Coase Theorem to Teenage Social-Media Usage

The Coase theorem’s basic insights are useful in evaluating not only legal decisions, but also legislation. Here, this means considering issues related to children and teenagers’ online social-media usage. Social-media platforms, teenage users, and their parents are the parties at-issue in this example. While social-media platforms create incredible value for their users,[14] they also arguably impose negative externalities on both teens and their parents.[15] The question here, as it was for Coase, is how to deal with those externalities.

The common-law framework of rights in this scenario is to allow minors to enter into enforceable agreements, except where they are void for public-policy reasons. As Adam Candeub points out:

Contract law is a creature of state law, and states require parental consent for minors entering all sorts of contracts for services or receiving privileges, including getting a tattoo, obtaining a driver’s license, using a tanning facility, purchasing insurance, and signing liability waivers. As a general rule, all contracts with minors are valid, but with certain exceptions they are voidable. And even though a minor can void most contracts he enters into, most jurisdictions have laws that hold a minor accountable for the benefits he received under the contract. Because children can make enforceable contracts for which parents could end up bearing responsibility, it is a reasonable regulation to require parental consent for such contracts. The few courts that have addressed the question of the enforceability of online contracts with minors have held the contracts enforceable on the receipt of the mildest benefit.[16]

Of course, many jurisdictions have passed laws requiring age-verification for various transactions prohibited to minors, such as laws for buying alcohol or tobacco,[17] obtaining driver’s licenses,[18] and buying lottery tickets or pornography.[19] Through the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and its regulations, the federal government also requires that online platforms obtain verifiable parental consent before they are permitted to collect certain personal information regarding children under age 13.[20]

The First Amendment, however, has been found to protect minors’ ability to receive speech, including through commercial transactions.[21] The question therefore arises: how should the law regard minors’ ability to access information on social-media platforms? In recent years, multiple jurisdictions have responded to this question by proposing or passing age-verification and parental-consent laws for teens’ social-media usage.[22]

As will be detailed below,[23] while the internet has contributed to significant reductions in transaction costs, they are still present. Thus, in order to maximize social-media platforms’ benefits while minimizing the negative externalities they impose, policymakers should endeavor to place the burden of avoiding the harms associated with teen use on the least-cost avoider. I argue that the least-cost avoider is parents and teens working together to make marginal decisions about social-media use, including by exploiting relatively low-cost practical and technological tools to avoid harmful content. The thesis of this issue brief is that this finding is consistent with the implicit Coasean reasoning in the Supreme Court’s major First Amendment cases on parental consent and age verification.

III.   Major Supreme Court Cases on Parent Consent and Age Verification

Parental-consent and age-verification laws that seek to protect minors from harmful content are not new. The Supreme Court has had occasion to review several of them, while applying First Amendment scrutiny. An interesting aspect of this line of cases is that the Court appears implicitly to have used Coasean analysis in understanding who should bear the burden of avoiding harms associated with speech platforms.

Specifically, in each case, after an initial finding that the restrictions were content-based, the Court applied strict scrutiny. Thus, the burden was placed on the government to prove the relevant laws were narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest using the least-restrictive means. The Court’s transaction-cost analysis is implicit throughout the descriptions of the problem in each case. But the main area of analysis below will be from each case’s least-restrictive-means test section, with a focus on the compelling-state-interest test in Part III.C. Parts III.A, III.B, and III.C will deal with each of these cases in turn.

A.    United States v Playboy Entertainment Group

In United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group,[24] the Supreme Court reviewed § 505 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required “cable television operators who provide channels ‘primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming’ either to ‘fully scramble or otherwise fully block’ those channels or to limit their transmission to hours when children are unlikely to be viewing, set by administrative regulation as the time between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.”[25] Even prior to the regulations promulgated pursuant to the law, cable operators used technological means called “scrambling” to blur sexually explicit content for those viewers who didn’t explicitly subscribe to such content, but there were reported problems with “signal bleed” that allowed some audio and visual content to be obtained by nonsubscribers.[26] Following the regulation, cable operators responded by shifting the hours when such content would be aired—i.e., by making it unavailable for 16 hours a day. This prevented cable subscribers from viewing purchased content of their choosing at times they would prefer.[27]

The basic Coasean framework is present right from the description of the problems that the statute and regulations were trying to solve. As the Court put it:

Two essential points should be understood concerning the speech at issue here. First, we shall assume that many adults themselves would find the material highly offensive; and when we consider the further circumstance that the material comes unwanted into homes where children might see or hear it against parental wishes or consent, there are legitimate reasons for regulating it. Second, all parties bring the case to us on the premise that Playboy’s programming has First Amendment protection. As this case has been litigated, it is not alleged to be obscene; adults have a constitutional right to view it; the Government disclaims any interest in preventing children from seeing or hearing it with the consent of their parents; and Playboy has concomitant rights under the First Amendment to transmit it. These points are undisputed.[28]

In Coasean language, the parties at-issue were the cable operators, content-providers of sexually explicit programming, adult cable subscribers, and their children. Cable television provides tremendous value to its customers, including sexually explicit subscription content that is valued by those subscribers. There is, however, a negative externality to the extent that such programming may become available to children whose parents find it inappropriate. The Court noted that some parents may allow their children to receive such content, and the government disclaimed an interest in preventing such reception with parental consent. Given imperfect scrambling technology, this possible negative externality was clearly present. The question that arose was whether the transaction costs imposed by time-shifting requirements in Section 505 have the effect of restricting adults’ ability to make such viewing decisions for themselves and on behalf of their children.

After concluding that Section 505 was a content-based restriction, due to the targeting of specific adult content and specific programmers, the Court stated that when a content-based restriction is designed “to shield the sensibilities of listeners, the general rule is that the right of expression prevails, even where no less restrictive alternative exists. We are expected to protect our own sensibilities ‘simply by averting [our] eyes.’” [29]

This application of strict scrutiny does not change, the court noted, because we are dealing in this instance with children or the issue of parental consent:

No one suggests the Government must be indifferent to unwanted, indecent speech that comes into the home without parental consent. The speech here, all agree, is protected speech; and the question is what standard the Government must meet in order to restrict it. As we consider a content-based regulation, the answer should be clear: The standard is strict scrutiny. This case involves speech alone; and even where speech is indecent and enters the home, the objective of shielding children does not suffice to support a blanket ban if the protection can be accomplished by a less restrictive alternative.[30]

Again, using our Coasean translator, we can read the opinion as saying the least-cost way to avoid the negative externality of unwanted adult content is by just not looking at it, or for parents to use the means available to them to prevent their children from viewing it.

In fact, that is exactly where the Court goes, by comparing, under the least-restrictive-means test, the targeted blocking mechanism made available in Section 504 of the statute to the requirements imposed by Section 505:

[T]argeted blocking enables the Government to support parental authority without affecting the First Amendment interests of speakers and willing listeners—listeners for whom, if the speech is unpopular or indecent, the privacy of their own homes may be the optimal place of receipt. Simply put, targeted blocking is less restrictive than banning, and the Government cannot ban speech if targeted blocking is a feasible and effective means of furthering its compelling interests. This is not to say that the absence of an effective blocking mechanism will in all cases suffice to support a law restricting the speech in question; but if a less restrictive means is available for the Government to achieve its goals, the Government must use it.[31]

Moreover, the Court found that the fact that parents largely eschewed the available low-cost means to avoid the harm was not necessarily sufficient for the government to prove that it is the least-restrictive alternative:

When a plausible, less restrictive alternative is offered to a content-based speech restriction, it is the Government’s obligation to prove that the alternative will be ineffective to achieve its goals. The Government has not met that burden here. In support of its position, the Government cites empirical evidence showing that § 504, as promulgated and implemented before trial, generated few requests for household-by-household blocking. Between March 1996 and May 1997, while the Government was enjoined from enforcing § 505, § 504 remained in operation. A survey of cable operators determined that fewer than 0.5% of cable subscribers requested full blocking during that time. Id., at 712. The uncomfortable fact is that § 504 was the sole blocking regulation in effect for over a year; and the public greeted it with a collective yawn.[32]

This is because there were, in fact, other market-based means available for parents to use to avoid the harm of unwanted adult programming,[33] and the government had not proved that Section 504 could be effective with more adequate notice.[34] The Court concluded its least-restrictive means analysis by saying:

Even upon the assumption that the Government has an interest in substituting itself for informed and empowered parents, its interest is not sufficiently compelling to justify this widespread restriction on speech. The Government’s argument stems from the idea that parents do not know their children are viewing the material on a scale or frequency to cause concern, or if so, that parents do not want to take affirmative steps to block it and their decisions are to be superseded. The assumptions have not been established; and in any event the assumptions apply only in a regime where the option of blocking has not been explained. The whole point of a publicized § 504 would be to advise parents that indecent material may be shown and to afford them an opportunity to block it at all times, even when they are not at home and even after 10 p.m. Time channeling does not offer this assistance. The regulatory alternative of a publicized § 504, which has the real possibility of promoting more open disclosure and the choice of an effective blocking system, would provide parents the information needed to engage in active supervision. The Government has not shown that this alternative, a regime of added communication and support, would be insufficient to secure its objective, or that any overriding harm justifies its intervention.[35]

In Coasean language, the government’s imposition of transaction costs through time-shifting channels is not the least-cost way to avoid the harm. By publicizing the blocking mechanism of Section 504, as well as promoting market-based alternatives like VCRs to record programming for playback later or blue-screen technology that blocks scrambled video, adults would be able to effectively act as least-cost avoiders of harmful content, including on behalf of their children.

B.     Ashcroft v ACLU

In Ashcroft v. ACLU,[36] the Supreme Court reviewed a U.S. District Court’s preliminary injunction of the age-verification requirements imposed by the Children Online Protection Act (COPA), which was designed to “protect minors from exposure to sexually explicit materials on the Internet.”[37] The law created criminal penalties “of a $50,000 fine and six months in prison for the knowing posting” for ‘commercial purposes’ of World Wide Web content that is ‘harmful to minors.’”[38] The law did, however, provide an escape hatch, through:

…an affirmative defense to those who employ specified means to prevent minors from gaining access to the prohibited materials on their Web site. A person may escape conviction under the statute by demonstrating that he

“has restricted access by minors to material that is harmful to minors—

“(A) by requiring use of a credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number;

“(B) by accepting a digital certificate that verifies age; or

“(C) by any other reasonable measures that are feasible under available technology.” § 231(c)(1).[39]

Here, the Coasean analysis of the problem is not stated as explicitly as in Playboy, but it is still apparent. The internet clearly provides substantial value to users, including those who want to view pornography. But there is a negative externality in internet pornography’s broad availability to minors for whom it would be inappropriate. Thus, to prevent these harms, COPA established a criminal regulatory scheme with an age-verification defense. The threat of criminal penalties, combined with the age-verification regime, imposed high transaction costs on online publishers who post content defined as harmful to minors. This leaves adults (including parents of children) and children themselves as the other relevant parties. Again, the question is: who is the least-cost avoider of the possible negative externality of minor access to pornography? The adult-content publisher or the parents, using technological and practical means?

The Court immediately went to an analysis of the least-restrictive-means test, defining the inquiry as follows:

In considering this question, a court assumes that certain protected speech may be regulated, and then asks what is the least restrictive alternative that can be used to achieve that goal. The purpose of the test is not to consider whether the challenged restriction has some effect in achieving Congress’ goal, regardless of the restriction it imposes. The purpose of the test is to ensure that speech is restricted no further than necessary to achieve the goal, for it is important to ensure that legitimate speech is not chilled or punished. For that reason, the test does not begin with the status quo of existing regulations, then ask whether the challenged restriction has some additional ability to achieve Congress’ legitimate interest. Any restriction on speech could be justified under that analysis. Instead, the court should ask whether the challenged regulation is the least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.[40]

The Court then considered the available alternative to COPA’s age-verification regime: blocking and filtering software. They found that such tools are clearly less-restrictive means, focusing not only on the software’s granting parents the ability to prevent their children from accessing inappropriate material, but also that adults would retain access to any content blocked by the filter by simply turning it off.[41] In fact, the Court noted that the evidence presented to the District Court suggested that filters, while imperfect, were probably even more effective than the age-verification regime.[42] Finally, the Court noted that, even if Congress couldn’t require filtering software, it could encourage it through parental education, by providing incentives to libraries and schools to use it, and by subsidizing development of the industry itself. Each of these, the Court argued, would be clearly less-restrictive means of promoting COPA’s goals.[43]

In Coasean language, the Court found that parents using technological and practical means are the least-cost avoider of the harm of exposing children to unwanted adult content. Government promotion and support of those means were held up as clearly less-restrictive alternatives than imposing transaction costs on publishers of adult content.

C.    Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association

In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association,[44] the Court considered California Assembly Bill 1179, which prohibited the sale or rental of “violent video games” to minors.[45] The Court first disposed of the argument that the government could create a new category of speech that it considered unprotected, just because it is directed at children, stating:

The California Act is something else entirely. It does not adjust the boundaries of an existing category of unprotected speech to ensure that a definition designed for adults is not uncritically applied to children. California does not argue that it is empowered to prohibit selling offensively violent works to adults—and it is wise not to, since that is but a hair’s breadth from the argument rejected in Stevens. Instead, it wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children.

That is unprecedented and mistaken. “[M]inors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well-defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them.” Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205, 212-213, 95 S.Ct. 2736*2736 2268, 45 L.Ed.2d 125 (1975) (citation omitted). No doubt a State possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm, Ginsberg, supra, at 640-641, 88 S.Ct. 1274; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 165, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645 (1944), but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. “Speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.” Erznoznik, supra, at 213-214, 95 S.Ct. 2268.[46]

The Court rejected that there was any “longstanding tradition” of restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, as demonstrated by copious examples of violent content in children’s books, high-school reading lists, motion pictures, radio dramas, comic books, television, music lyrics, etc. Moreover, to the extent there was a time when government enforced such regulations, the courts have eventually overturned them.[47] The fact that video games were interactive did not matter either, the Court found, as all literature is potentially interactive, especially genres like choose-your-own-adventure stories.[48]

Thus, because the law was clearly content-based, the Court applied strict scrutiny. The Court was skeptical even of whether the government had a compelling state interest, finding the law to be both seriously over- and under-inclusive. The same effects of exposure to violent content, the Court noted, could be found from covered video games and cartoons not subject to the law’s provisions. Moreover, the law allowed a parent or guardian (or any adult) to buy violent video games for their children.[49]

The Court then gets to the law’s real justification, which it summarily rejected as inconsistent with the First Amendment:

California claims that the Act is justified in aid of parental authority: By requiring that the purchase of violent video games can be made only by adults, the Act ensures that parents can decide what games are appropriate. At the outset, we note our doubts that punishing third parties for conveying protected speech to children just in case their parents disapprove of that speech is a proper governmental means of aiding parental authority.[50]

In Coasean language, the Court is saying that video games—even violent ones—are subjectively valued by those who play them, including minors. There may be negative externalities from playing such games, in that exposure to violence could be linked to psychological harm, and that they are interactive, but these content and design features are still protected speech. Placing the transaction costs on parents/adults to buy such games on behalf of minors, just in case some parents disapprove of their children playing them, is not a compelling state interest.

While the Court is only truly focused on whether there is a compelling state interest in California’s statutory scheme regulating violent video games, some of the language would equally apply to a least-restrictive means analysis:

But leaving that aside, California cannot show that the Act’s restrictions meet a substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children’s access to violent video games but cannot do so. The video-game industry has in place a voluntary rating system designed to inform consumers about the content of games. The system, implemented by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), assigns age-specific ratings to each video game submitted: EC (Early Childhood); E (Everyone); E10 + (Everyone 10 and older); T (Teens); M (17 and older); and AO (Adults Only—18 and older). App. 86. The Video Software Dealers Association encourages retailers to prominently display information about the ESRB system in their stores; to refrain from renting or selling adults-only games to minors; and to rent or sell “M” rated games to minors only with parental consent. Id., at 47. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that, as a result of this system, “the video game industry outpaces the movie and music industries” in “(1) restricting target-marketing of mature-rated products to children; (2) clearly and prominently disclosing rating information; and (3) restricting children’s access to mature-rated products at retail.” FTC, Report to Congress, Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children 30 (Dec.2009), online at http://www. ftc.gov/os/2009/12/P994511violent entertainment.pdf (as visited June 24, 2011, and available in Clerk of Court’s case file) (FTC Report). This system does much to ensure that minors cannot purchase seriously violent games on their own, and that parents who care about the matter can readily evaluate the games their children bring home. Filling the remaining modest gap in concerned parents’ control can hardly be a compelling state interest.

And finally, the Act’s purported aid to parental authority is vastly overinclusive. Not all of the children who are forbidden to purchase violent video games on their own have parents who care whether they purchase violent video games. While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want. This is not the narrow tailoring to “assisting parents” that restriction of First Amendment rights requires.[51]

In sum, the Court suggests that the law would not be narrowly tailored, because there are already market-based systems in place to help parents and minors make informed decisions about which video games to buy—most importantly from the rating system that judges appropriateness by age and offers warnings about violence. Government paternalism is simply insufficient to justify imposing new transaction costs on parents and minors who wish to buy even violent video games.

Interestingly, the concurrence of Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, also contains some language that could be interpreted through a Coasean lens. The concurrence allows, in particular, the possibility that harms from interactive violent video games may differ from other depictions of violence that society has allowed children to view, although it concludes that reasonable minds may differ.[52] In other words, the concurrence basically notes that the negative externalities may be greater than the majority opinion would allow, but nonetheless, that Justices Alito and Roberts agreed the law was not drafted in a constitutional manner that comports with the obscenity exception to the First Amendment.

Nonetheless, it appears the Court applies an implicit Coasean framework when it rejects the imposition of transaction costs on parents and minors to gain access to protected speech—in this case, violent video games. Parents and minors remain the least-cost avoiders of the potential harms of violent video games.

IV.   Coase Theorem Applied to Age-Verification and Verifiable-Consent Laws

As outlined above, the issue is whether social media needs age-verification and parental-consent laws in order to address negative externalities to minor users. This section will analyze this question under the Coasean framework introduced in Part II.

The basic argument proceeds as follows:

  1. Transaction costs for age verification and verifiable consent from parents and/or teens are sufficient large to prevent a bargain from being struck;
  2. The lowest-cost avoiders are parents and teens working together, using practical and technological means, including low-cost monitoring and filtering services, to make marginal decisions about minors’ social-media use; and
  3. Placing the transaction costs on social-media companies to obtain age verification and verifiable consent from parents and/or teens would actually reduce their ability to make marginal decisions about minors’ social-media use, as social-media companies will respond by investing more in excluding minors from access than in creating safe and vibrant spaces for interaction.

Part IV.A will detail the substantial transaction costs associated with obtaining age verification and verifiable parental consent. Part IV.B argues that parents and teens working together using practical and technological means are the lowest-cost avoiders of the harms of social-media use. Part IV.C will consider the counterfactual scenario of placing the transaction costs on social-media companies and argue that the result would be teens’ exclusion from social media, to their detriment, as well as the detriment of parents who would have made different choices.

A.    Transaction Costs, Age Verification, and Verifiable Parental Consent[53]

As Coase taught, in a world without transaction costs (or where such costs are sufficiently low), age-verification laws or mandates to obtain verifiable parental consent would not matter, because the parties would bargain to arrive at an efficient solution. Because there are high transaction costs that prevent such bargains from being easily struck, making the default that teens cannot join social media without verifiable parental consent could have the effect of excluding them from the great benefits of social media usage altogether.[54]

There is considerable evidence that, even despite the internet and digital technology serving to reduce transaction costs considerably across a wide range of fronts,[55] transaction costs remain high when it comes to age verification and verifiable parental consent. A data point that supports this conclusion is the experience of social-media platforms under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).[56] In their working paper “COPPAcalypse? The YouTube Settlement’s Impact on Kids Content,”[57] Garrett Johnson, Tesary Lin, James C. Cooper, & Liang Zhong summarized the issue as follows:

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and its implementing regulations, broadly prohibit operators of online services directed at children under 13 from collecting personal information without providing notice of its data collection and use practices and obtaining verifiable parental consent. Because obtaining verifiable parental consent for free online services is difficult and rarely cost justified, COPPA essentially acts as a de facto ban on the collection of personal information by providers of free child-directed content. In 2013, the FTC amended the COPPA rules to include in the definition of personal information “persistent identifier that can be used to recognize a user over time and across different Web sites or online services,” such as a “customer number held in a cookie . . . or unique device identifier.” This regulatory change meant that, as a practical matter, online operators who provide child-directed content could no longer engage in personalized advertising.

On September 4, 2019, the FTC entered into a consent agreement with YouTube to settle charges that it had violated COPPA. The FTC’s allegations focused on YouTube’s practice of serving personalized advertising on child-directed content at children without obtaining verifiable parental consent. Although YouTube maintains it is a general audience website and users must be at least 13 years old to obtain a Google ID (which makes personalized advertising possible), the FTC complaint alleges that YouTube knew that many of its channels were popular with children under 13, citing YouTube’s own claims to advertisers. The settlement required YouTube to identify child-directed channels and videos and to stop collecting personal information from visitors to these channels. In response, YouTube required channel owners producing [“made-for-kids”] MFK content to designate either their entire channels or specific videos as MFK, beginning on January 1, 2020. YouTube supplemented these self-designations with an automated classifier designed to identify content that was likely directed at children younger than 13.9 In so doing, YouTube effectively shifted liability under COPPA to the channel owners, who could face up to $42,530 in fines per video if they fail to self-designate and are not detected by YouTube’s classifier.[58]

The rule change and settlement increased the transaction costs imposed on social-media platforms by requiring verifiable parental consent. YouTube’s economically rational response was to restrict the content creators’ ability to benefit from (considerably more lucrative) personalized advertising. The end result was less content created for children, with competitive effects to boot:

Consistent with a loss in personalized ad revenue, we find that child-directed content creators produce 13% less content and pivot towards producing non-child-directed content. On the demand side, views of child-directed channels fall by 22%. Consistent with the platform’s degraded capacity to match viewers to content, we find that content creation and content views become more concentrated among top child-directed YouTube channels.[59]

This is not the only finding regarding COPPA’s role in reducing the production of content for children. The president of the App Association, a global trade association for small and medium-sized technology companies, presented extensively at the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) 2019 COPPA Workshop.[60] The testimony from App Association President Morgan Reed detailed that the transaction costs associated with obtaining verifiable parental consent did little to enhance parental control, but much to reduce the quality and quantity of content directed to children. But it is worth highlighting Reed’s constant use of the words “friction,” “restriction,” and “cost” to describe how the institutional environment of COPPA affects the behavior of the social media platforms, parents, and children. While noting that general audience content is “unfettered, meaning that you don’t feel restricted by what you can get to, how you do it. It’s easy, it’s low friction. Widely available. I can get it on any platform, in any case, in any context and I can get to it rapidly,” COPPA-regulated apps and content are, Reed said, all about:

Friction, restriction, and cost. Every layer of friction you add alters parent behavior significantly. We jokingly refer to it as the over the shoulder factor. If a parent wants access to something and they have to pass it from the back seat to the front seat of the car more than one time, the parent moves on to the next thing. So the more friction you add to an application directed at children the less likely it is that the parent is going to take the steps necessary to get through it because the competition, of course, is as I said, free, unfettered, widely available. Restriction. Kids balk against some of the restrictions. I can’t get to this, I can’t do that. And they say that to the parent. And from the parent’s perspective, fine, I’ll just put in a different age date. They’re participating, they’re parenting but they’re not using the regulatory construction that we all understand.

The COPPA side, expensive, onerous or friction full. We have to find some way around that. Restrictive, fewer features, fewer capabilities, less known or available, and it’s entertaining-ish. …

Is COPPA the barrier? I thought this quote really summed it up. “Seamlessness is expected. But with COPPA, seamlessness is impossible.” And that has been one of the single largest areas of concern. Our folks are looking to provide a COPPA compliant environment. And they’re finding doing VPC is really hard. We want to make it this way, we just walked away. And why do they want to do it? We wanted to create a hub for kids to promote creativity. So these are not folks who are looking to take data and provide interest based advertising. They’re trying to figure out how to do it so they can build an engaging product. Parental consent makes the whole process very complicated. And this is the depressing part. …

We say that VPC is intentional friction. It’s clear from everything we’ve heard in the last two panels that the authors of COPPA, we don’t really want information collected on kids. So friction is intentional. And this is leading to the destruction of general audience applications basically wiping out COPPA apps off the face of the map.[61]

Reed’s use of the word “friction” is particularly enlightening. Mike Munger has often described transaction costs as frictions, explaining that, to consumers, all costs are transaction costs.[62] When higher transaction costs are imposed on social-media platforms, end users feel the impact. In this case, the result is that children and parents receive less quality children’s apps and content.

A similar example can be seen in the various battles between traditional media and social-media companies in Australia, Canada, and the EU, where laws have been passed that would require platforms to pay for linking to certain news content.[63] Because these laws raise transaction costs, social-media platforms have responded by restricting access to news links,[64] to the detriment of users and the news-media organizations themselves. In other words, much like with verifiable parental consent, the intent of these laws is thwarted by the underlying economics.

More evidence that imposing transaction costs on social-media companies can have the effect of diminishing the user experience can be found in the preliminary injunction issued by the U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas in Free Speech Coalition Inc. v. Colmenero.[65] The court cited evidence from the plaintiff’s complaint that included bills for “several commercial verification services, showing that they cost, at minimum, $40,000.00 per 100,000 verifications.”[66] The court also noted that “[Texas law] H.B. 1181 imposes substantial liability for violations, including $10,000.00 per day for each violation, and up to $250,000.00 if a minor is shown to have viewed the adult content.”[67]

Moreover, the transaction costs in this example also include the subjective costs borne by those who actually go through with verifying their age to access pornography. As the court noted “the law interferes with the Adult Video Companies’ ability to conduct business, and risks deterring adults from visiting the websites.”[68] The court issued a preliminary injunction against the law’s age-verification provision, finding that other means—such as content-filtering software—are clearly more effective than age verification to protect children from unwanted content.[69]

In sum, transaction costs for age verification and verifiable parental consent are sufficiently high as to prevent an easy bargain from being struck. Thus, which party bears the burden of those costs will determine the outcome. The lessons from COPPA, news-media laws, and online-pornography age-verification laws are clear: if the transaction costs are imposed on the online platforms and apps, it will lead to access restrictions on the speech those platforms provide, almost all of which is protected speech. This is the type of collateral censorship that the First Amendment is designed to avoid.[70]

B.     Parents and Teens as the Least-Cost Avoiders of Negative Externalities

If transaction costs due to online age-verification and verifiable-parent-consent laws are substantial, the question becomes which party or parties should be subject to the burden of avoiding the harms arising from social-media usage.

It is possible, in theory, that social-media platforms are the best-positioned to monitor and control content posted to their platforms—for instance, when it comes to harms associated with anonymous or pseudonymous accounts imposing social costs on society.[71] In such cases, a duty of care that would allow for intermediary liability against social-media companies may make sense.[72]

On the other hand, when it comes to online age-verification and parental-consent laws, widely available practical and technological means appear to be lowest-cost way to avoid the negative externalities associated with social-media usage. As NetChoice put it in their complaint against Arkansas’ social-media age-verification law, “[p]arents have myriad ways to restrict their children’s access to online services and to keep their children safe on such services.”[73]

In their complaint, NetChoice recognizes the subjective nature of negative externalities, stating:

Just as people inevitably have different opinions about what books, television shows, and video games are appropriate for minors, people inevitably have different views about whether and to what degree online services are appropriate for minors. While many minors use online services in wholesome and productive ways, online services, like many other technologies, can be abused in ways that may harm minors.[74]

They then expertly list all the ways that parents can take control and help their children avoid online harms, including with respect to the decisions to buy devices for their children and to set terms for how and when they are permitted to use them.[75] Parents can also choose to use tools from cell-phone carriers and broadband providers to block certain apps and sites from their children’s devices, or to control with whom their children can communicate and for how long they can use the devices.[76] They also point to wireless routers that allow for parents to filter and monitor online content;[77] parental controls at the device level;[78] third-party filtering applications;[79] and numerous tools offered by NetChoice members that all allow for relatively low-cost monitoring and control by parents and even teen users acting on their own behalf.[80] Finally, they note that NetChoice members, in response to market demand,[81]expend significant resources curating content to make sure it’s appropriate.[82]

The recent response from the Australian government to the proposed “Roadmap for Age Verification”[83] buttresses this analysis. The government pulled back from plans to “force adult websites to bring in age verification following concerns about privacy and the lack of maturity of the technology.”[84] In particular, the government noted that:

It is clear from the Roadmap that at present, each type of age verification or age assurance technology comes with its own privacy, security, effectiveness and implementation issues. For age assurance to be effective, it must:

  • work reliably without circumvention;
  • be comprehensively implemented, including where pornography is hosted outside of Australia’s jurisdiction; and
  • balance privacy and security, without introducing risks to the personal information of adults who choose to access legal pornography.

Age assurance technologies cannot yet meet all these requirements. While industry is taking steps to further develop these technologies, the Roadmap finds that the age assurance market is, at this time, immature.

The Roadmap makes clear that a decision to mandate age assurance is not ready to be taken.[85]

As a better solution, the government offered “[m]ore support and resources for families,”[86] including promoting tools already available in the marketplace to help prevent children from accessing inappropriate content like pornography,[87] and promoting education for both parents and children on how to avoid online harms.[88]

In sum, this is all about transaction costs. The least-cost avoider from negative externalities imposed by social-media usage are the parents and teens themselves, working together to make marginal decisions about how to use these platforms through the use of widely available practical and technological means.

C.    Teen Exclusion Online and Reduced Parental Involvement in Social-Media Usage Decisions

If the burden of avoiding negative externalities is placed on social-media platforms, the result could be considerable collateral censorship of protected speech. This is because of transaction costs, as explained above in Part IV.A. Thus, while one could argue that the externalities imposed by social-media platforms on teen users and their parents represent a market failure, this is not the end of the analysis. Transaction costs help to explain that the institutional environment we create fosters the rules of the game that platforms, parents, and teens follow. If transaction costs are too high and placed incorrectly on social-media platforms, parents and teens’ ability to control how they use social media will actually suffer.

As can be seen most prominently in the COPPA examples discussed above,[89] the burden of obtaining verifiable parental consent leads to platforms reallocating investments into the exclusion of the protected class—in that case, children under age 13—that could otherwise go toward creating a safe and vibrant community from which children could benefit. Thus, proposals like COPPA 2.0,[90] which would extend the need for verifiable consent to teens, could yield an equivalent result of greater exclusion of teens. State laws that would require age verification and verifiable parental consent for teens are likely to produce the same result, as well. The irony, of course, is that parental consent laws would actually reduce the available choices for those parents who see the use value for their teenagers.

In sum, the economics of transaction costs explains why age-verification and verifiable-parental-consent laws will not satisfy their proponents’ stated objectives. As with minimum-wage laws[91] and rent control,[92] economics helps to explain the counterintuitive finding that well-intentioned laws can actually produce the exact opposite end result. Here, that means age-verification and verifiable-parental-consent laws lead to parents and teens being less able to make meaningful and marginal decisions about the costs and benefits of their own social-media usage.

V.     The Unconstitutionality of Social-Media Verification and Verifiable-Consent Laws

Bringing this all together, Part V will consider the constitutionality of the enacted and proposed laws on age verification and verifiable parental consent under the First Amendment. As several courts have already suggested, these laws will not survive First Amendment scrutiny.

The first question is whether these laws will be subject to strict scrutiny (because they are content-based) or instead to intermediate scrutiny as content-neutral regulations. There is a possibility that it will not matter, because a court could find—as one already has—that such laws burden more speech than necessary anyway. Part V.A will take up these questions.

The second set of questions is whether, assuming strict scrutiny applies, these enacted and proposed laws could survive the least-restrictive-means test. Part V.B will consider this set of questions and argue that, as the lowest-cost avoiders, parents and teens working together using widely available practical and technological means to avoid negative externalities also represents the least-restrictive means to promote the government’s interest in protecting minors from the harms of social media.

A.    Questions of Content Neutrality

The first important question is whether laws that attempt to protect minors from externalities associated with social-media usage are content-neutral. One argument that has been forwarded is that they are simply content-neutral contract laws that shift the consent default to parents before teens can establish an ongoing contractual relationship with a social-media company by creating a profile.[93]

Before delving into whether that argument could work, it is worth considering laws that are clearly content-based to help tell the difference. For instance, the Texas law challenged in Free Speech Coalition v. Colmenero is clearly content-based, because “the regulation is based on whether content contains sexual material.”[94]

Similarly, laws like the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA)[95] are content-based, in that they require covered platforms to take:

reasonable measures in its design or operation of products and services to prevent or mitigate the following:

  • Consistent with evidence-informed medical information, the following mental health disorders: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal behaviors.

  • Patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction-like behaviors.

  • Physical violence, online bullying, and harassment of the minor.

  • Sexual exploitation and abuse.

  • Promotion and marketing of narcotic drugs (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)), tobacco products, gambling, or alcohol.

  • Predatory, unfair, or deceptive marketing practices, or other financial harms.[96]

While parts 4-6 and actual physical violence all constitute either unprotected speech or conduct, decisions about how to present information from part 2 is arguably protected speech.[97] Even true threats like online bullying and harassment are speech subject to at least some First Amendment scrutiny, in that they would require some type of mens rea to be constitutional.[98] Part 1 may be unconstitutionally vague as written.[99] Moreover, 1-3 are clearly content-based, in that it is necessary to consider the content presented, which will include at least some protected speech. This equally applies to the California Age Appropriate Design Code,[100] which places an obligation on covered companies to identify and mitigate speech that is harmful or potentially harmful to users under 18 years old, and to prioritize speech that promotes such users’ well-being and best interests.[101]

In each of these cases, it would be difficult to argue that strict scrutiny ought not apply. On the other hand, some have argued that the Utah and Arkansas laws requiring age verification and verifiable parental consent are simply content-neutral regulations of contract formation, which can be considered independently of speech.[102] Arkansas has argued that Act 689’s age-verification requirements are “merely a content-neutral regulation on access to speech at particular ‘locations,’ so intermediate scrutiny should apply.”[103]

But even in NetChoice v. Griffin,[104] the U.S. District Court in Arkansas, while skeptical that the law was content-neutral,[105] proceeded as if it was and still found, in granting a preliminary injunction, that the age-verification law “is likely to unduly burden adult and minor access to constitutionally protected speech.”[106] Similarly, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that all major provisions of California’s AADC were likely unconstitutional under a lax commercial-speech standard.[107]

Nonetheless, there are strong arguments that these laws are content-based. As the court in Griffin put it:

Deciding whether Act 689 is content-based or content-neutral turns on the reasons the State gives for adopting the Act. First, the State argues that the more time a minor spends on social media, the more likely it is that the minor will suffer negative mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety. Second, the State points out that adult sexual predators on social media seek out minors and victimize them in various ways. Therefore, to the State, a law limiting access to social media platforms based on the user’s age would be content-neutral and require only intermediate scrutiny.

On the other hand, the State points to certain speech-related content on social media that it maintains is harmful for children to view. Some of this content is not constitutionally protected speech, while other content, though potentially damaging or distressing, especially to younger minors, is likely protected nonetheless. Examples of this type of speech include depictions and discussions of violence or self-harming, information about dieting, so-called “bullying” speech, or speech targeting a speaker’s physical appearance, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. If the State’s purpose is to restrict access to constitutionally protected speech based on the State’s belief that such speech is harmful to minors, then arguably Act 689 would be subject to strict scrutiny.

During the hearing, the State advocated for intermediate scrutiny and framed Act 689 as “a restriction on where minors can be,” emphasizing it was “not a speech restriction” but “a location restriction.” The State’s briefing analogized Act 689 to a restriction on minors entering a bar or a casino. But this analogy is weak. After all, minors have no constitutional right to consume alcohol, and the primary purpose of a bar is to serve alcohol. By contrast, the primary purpose of a social media platform is to engage in speech, and the State stipulated that social media platforms contain vast amounts of constitutionally protected speech for both adults and minors. Furthermore, Act 689 imposes much broader “location restrictions” than a bar does. The Court inquired of the State why minors should be barred from accessing entire social media platforms, even though only some of the content was potentially harmful to them, and the following colloquy ensued:

THE COURT: Well, to pick up on Mr. Allen’s analogy of the mall, I haven’t been to the Northwest Arkansas mall in a while, but it used to be that there was a restaurant inside the mall that had a bar. And so certainly minors could not go sit at the bar and order up a drink, but they could go to the Barnes & Noble bookstore or the clothing store or the athletic store. Again, borrowing Mr. Allen’s analogy, the gatekeeping that Act 689 imposes is at the front door of the mall, not the bar inside the mall; yes?

THE STATE: The state’s position is that the whole mall is a bar, if you want to continue to use the analogy.

THE COURT: The whole mall is a bar?

THE STATE: Correct.

Clearly, the state’s analogy is not persuasive.

NetChoice argues that Act 689 is not a content-neutral restriction on minors’ ability to access particular spaces online, and the fact that there are so many exemptions to the definitions of “social media company” and “social media platform” proves that the State is targeting certain companies based either on a platform’s content or its viewpoint. Indeed, Act 689’s definitions and exemptions do seem to indicate that the State has selected a few platforms for regulation while ignoring all the rest. The fact that the State fails to acknowledge this causes the Court to suspect that the regulation may not be content neutral. “If there is evidence that an impermissible purpose or justification underpins a facially content-neutral restriction, for instance, that restriction may be content-based.” City of Austin v. Reagan Nat’l Advertising of Austin, LLC, 142 S. Ct. 1464, 1475 (2022).[108]

Utah’s laws HB 311 and 152 would also seem to suffer from a similar defect as KOSA and AADC,[109] though they have not yet been litigated.

B.     Least-Restrictive Means Is to Promote Monitoring and Filtering

Assuming that courts do, in fact, find that these laws are content-based, strict scrutiny would apply, including the least-restrictive-means test.[110] In that case, the caselaw is clear: the least-restrictive means to achieve the government’s interest of protecting minors from social media’s speech and design problems is to promote low-cost monitoring and filtering.

First, however, it is also worth inquiring whether the government would be able to establish a compelling state interest, as the Court discussed in Brown. The Court’s strong skepticism of government paternalism[111] applies equally to the verifiable-parental-consent laws enacted in Arkansas and Utah, as well as COPPA 2.0. Aiding parental consent likely fails to “meet a substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children’s access”[112] to social media, but can’t do so, to use the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s language. Moreover, the “purported aid to parental authority” is likely to be found to be “vastly overinclusive” because “[n]ot all of the children who are forbidden” to join social media on “their own have parents who care whether” they do so.[113] While such laws “may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want. This is not the narrow tailoring to ‘assisting parents’ that restriction of First Amendment rights requires.”[114]

As argued clearly above, Ashcroft is strong precedent that promoting the practical and technological means available in the marketplace, outlined by NetChoice in its brief in Griffin, is less restrictive than age-verification laws to protect minors from harms associated with social-media usage.[115] In fact, there is a strong argument that the market has subsequently produced more and more effective tools than were available even then. This makes it exceedingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will change its mind.

While some have argued that Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in Brown offers roadmap to reject these precedents,[116] there is little basis for that conclusion. First, Thomas’ dissent in Brown was not joined by any other members of the Supreme Court.[117] Second, Justice Thomas joined the majority in Ashcroft v. ACLU, suggesting he probably still sees age-verification laws as unconstitutional.[118] Even Associate Justice Samuel Alito issued a concurrence to the majority in that case,[119] expressing skepticism of Justice Thomas’ approach.[120]  Third, it seems unlikely that the newer conservative justices, whose jurisprudence has been more speech-protective by nature,[121] would join Justice Thomas in his opinion on the right of children to receive speech. And far from being vague on the issue of whether a minor has a right to receive speech, [122] Justice Scalia’s majority opinion clearly stated that:

[M]inors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well-defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them… but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.[123]

Precedent is strong against age-verification and parental-consent laws, and there is no reason to think the personnel changes on the Supreme Court would change the analysis.

In sum, straightforward applications of Brown and Ashcroft doom these new social-media laws.

VI.   Conclusion

This issue brief has two main conclusions, one of interest to the scholarship of applying law & economics to constitutional law, and the other to the policy and legal questions surrounding social-media age-verification and parental-consent laws:

  1. The Supreme Court appears to implicitly adopt a Coasean framework in its approach to parental-consent and age-verification laws in the three major precedents of Playboy, Ashcroft, and Brown; and
  2. The application of this least-cost avoider analysis in the least-restrictive-means test, in particular, is likely to doom these laws constitutionally, but also as a matter of economically grounded policy.

In conclusion, these online age-verification laws should be rejected. Why? The answer is transaction costs.

[1] See, e.g., Kirsten Weir, Social Media Brings Benefits and Risks to Teens. Here’s How Psychology Can Help Identify a Path Forward, 54 Monitor on Psychology 46 (Sep. 1, 2023), https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/09/protecting-teens-on-social-media.

[2] See, e.g., Khara Boender, Jordan Rodell, & Alex Spyropoulos, The State of Affairs: What Happened in Tech Policy During 2023 State Legislative Sessions?, Project Disco (Jul. 25, 2023), https://www.project-disco.org/competition/the-state-of-affairs-state-tech-policy-in-2023 (noting laws passed and proposed addressing children’s online safety at the state level, including California’s Age-Appropriate Design Code and age-verification laws in both Arkansas and Utah, all of which will be considered below).

[3] With apologies to Mike Munger for borrowing the title of his excellent podcast, invoked several times in this issue brief; see The Answer Is Transaction Costs, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-answer-is-transaction-costs/id1687215430 (last accessed Sept. 28, 2023).

[4] Steven G. Medema, “Failure to Appear”: The Use of the Coase Theorem in Judicial Opinions, at 4, Dep’t of Econ. Duke Univ., Working Paper No. 2.1 (2019), available at https://hope.econ.duke.edu/sites/hope.econ.duke.edu/files/Medema%20workshop%20paper.pdf.

[5] Fred R. Shapiro & Michelle Pearse, The Most Cited Law Review Articles of All Time, 110 Mich. L. Rev. 1483, 1489 (2012).

[6] R.H. Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, 3 J. L. & Econ. 1 (1960).

[7] See generally Steven G. Medema, The Coase Theorem at Sixty, 58 J. Econ. Lit. 1045 (2020).

[8] Todd J. Zywicki & Edward Peter Stringham, Common Law and Economic Efficiency, Geo. Mason Univ.. L. & Econ. Rsch., Working Paper No. 10-43 (2010), available at https://www.law.gmu.edu/assets/files/publications/working_papers/1043CommonLawandEconomicEfficiency.pdf.

[9] See id. at 4.

[10] See id. at 3.

[11] See id. at 10.

[12] See id. at 34.

[13] Medema, supra note 4, at 39.

[14] See, e.g., Matti Cuorre & Andrew K. Przybylski, Estimating the Association Between Facebook Adoption and Well-Being in 72 Countries, 10 Royal Soc’y Open Sci. 1 (2023), https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/epdf/10.1098/rsos.221451; Sabrina Cipoletta, Clelia Malighetti, Chiara Cenedese, & Andrea Spoto, How Can Adolescents Benefit from the Use of Social Networks? The iGeneration on Instagram, 17 Int. J. Environ. Res. Pub. Health 6952 (2020), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7579040.

[15] See Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L Rogers, & Gabrielle N. Martin, Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time, 6 Clinical Psych. Sci. 3 (2018), available at https://courses.engr.illinois.edu/cs565/sp2018/Live1_Depression&ScreenTime.pdf.

[16] Adam Candeub, Age Verification for Social Media: A Constitutional and Reasonable Regulation, FedSoc Blog (Aug. 7, 2023), https://fedsoc.org/commentary/fedsoc-blog/age-verification-for-social-media-a-constitutional-and-reasonable-regulation.

[17] See Wikipedia, List of Alcohol Laws of the United States, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_alcohol_laws_of_the_United_States (last accessed Sep. 28, 2023); Wikipedia, U.S. History of Tobacco Minimum Purchase Age by State, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._history_of_tobacco_minimum_purchase_age_by_state (last accessed Sep. 28, 2023).

[18] See Wikipedia, Driver’s Licenses in the United States, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driver%27s_licenses_in_the_United_States (last accessed Sep. 28, 2023).

[19] See Wikipedia, Gambling Age, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambling_age (last accessed Sep. 28, 2023) (table on minimum age for lottery tickets and casinos by state). As far as this author is aware, every state and territory requires identification demonstrating the buyer is at least 18 years old to make a retail purchase of a pornographic magazine or video.

[20] See 15 U.S.C. § 6501, et seq. (2018); 16 CFR Part 312.

[21] See infra Part III. See Brown v. Ent. Merch. Ass’n, 564 U.S. 786, 794 (2011) (“California does not argue that it is empowered to prohibit selling offensively violent works to adults—and it is wise not to, since that is but a hair’s breadth from the argument rejected in Stevens. Instead, it wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children. That is unprecedented and mistaken. ‘[M]inors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well-defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them…’ No doubt a State possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm… but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. ‘Speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.’”) (internal citations omitted).

[22] See infra Part V.

[23] See infra Part IV.

[24] 529 U.S. 803 (2000).

[25] Id. at 806.

[26] See id.

[27] See id. at 806-807.

[28] Id. at 811.

[29] Id. at 813 (internal citation omitted).

[30] Id. at 814.

[31] Id. at 815.

[32] Id. at 816.

[33] See id. at 821 (“[M]arket-based solutions such as programmable televisions, VCR’s, and mapping systems []which display a blue screen when tuned to a scrambled signal[] may eliminate signal bleed at the consumer end of the cable.”).

[34] See id. at 823 (“The Government also failed to prove § 504 with adequate notice would be an ineffective alternative to § 505.”).

[35] Id. at 825-826.

[36] 542 U.S. 656 (2004).

[37] Id. at 659.

[38] Id. at 661.

[39] Id. at 662.

[40] Id. at 666.

[41] See id. at 667 (“Filters are less restrictive than COPA. They impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restrictions at the source. Under a filtering regime, adults without children may gain access to speech they have a right to see without having to identify themselves or provide their credit card information. Even adults with children may obtain access to the same speech on the same terms simply by turning off the filter on their home computers. Above all, promoting the use of filters does not condemn as criminal any category of speech, and so the potential chilling effect is eliminated, or at least much diminished. All of these things are true, moreover, regardless of how broadly or narrowly the definitions in COPA are construed.”).

[42] See id. at 667-669.

[43] See id. at 669-670.

[44] 564 U.S. 786 (2011).

[45] See id. at 787.

[46] Id. at 793-795.

[47] See id. at 794-797.

[48] See id. at 796-799.

[49] See id. at 799-802.

[50] Id. at 801.

[51] Id. at 801-804.

[52] See id. at 812 (J. Alito, concurring):

“There is a critical difference, however, between obscenity laws and laws regulating violence in entertainment. By the time of this Court’s landmark obscenity cases in the 1960’s, obscenity had long been prohibited, See Roth v. U.S., 354 U.S. 476, at 484-485, and this experience had helped to shape certain generally accepted norms concerning expression related to sex.

There is no similar history regarding expression related to violence. As the Court notes, classic literature contains descriptions of great violence, and even children’s stories sometimes depict very violent scenes.

Although our society does not generally regard all depictions of violence as suitable for children or adolescents, the prevalence of violent depictions in children’s literature and entertainment creates numerous opportunities for reasonable people to disagree about which depictions may excite “deviant” or “morbid” impulses. See Edwards & Berman, Regulating Violence on Television, 89 Nw. U.L.Rev. 1487, 1523 (1995) (observing that the Miller test would be difficult to apply to violent expression because “there is nothing even approaching a consensus on low-value violence”).

Finally, the difficulty of ascertaining the community standards incorporated into the California law is compounded by the legislature’s decision to lump all minors together. The California law draws no distinction between young children and adolescents who are nearing the age of majority.”

See also id. at 819 (Alito, J., concurring) (“If the technological characteristics of the sophisticated games that are likely to be available in the near future are combined with the characteristics of the most violent games already marketed, the result will be games that allow troubled teens to experience in an extraordinarily personal and vivid way what it would be like to carry out unspeakable acts of violence.”).

[53] The following sections are adapted from Ben Sperry, Right to Anonymous Speech, Part 3: Anonymous Speech and Age-Verification Laws, Truth on the Market (Sep. 11, 2023), https://truthonthemarket.com/2023/09/11/right-to-anonymous-speech-part-3-anonymous-speech-and-age-verification-laws.

[54] See Ben Sperry, Online Safety Bills Will Mean Kids Are No Longer Seen or Heard Online, The Hill (May 12, 2023), https://thehill.com/opinion/congress-blog/4002535-online-safety-bills-will-mean-kids-are-no-longer-seen-or-heard-online;  Ben Sperry, Bills Aimed at ‘Protecting’ Kids Online Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater, The Hill (Jul. 26, 2023), https://thehill.com/opinion/congress-blog/4121324-bills-aimed-at-protecting-kids-online-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater; Przybylski & Vuorre, supra note 14; Mesfin A. Bekalu, Rachel F. McCloud, & K. Viswanath, Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use, 42 Sage J. 69S, 69S-80S (2019), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1090198119863768.

[55] See generally Michael Munger, Tomorrow 3.0: Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy, Cambridge University Press (Mar. 22, 2018).

[56] The Future of the COPPA Rule: An FTC Workshop Part 2, Federal Trade Commission (Oct. 7, 2019), available at https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_events/1535372/transcript_of_coppa_workshop_part_2_1.pdf.

[57] Garrett A. Johnson, Tesary Lin, James C. Cooper, & Liang Zhong, COPPAcalypse? The YouTube Settlement’s Impact on Kids Content, SSRN (Apr. 26, 2023), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4430334.

[58] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added).

[59] Id. at 1.

[60] FTC, supra note 56.

[61] Id. at 6 (emphasis added).

[62] See Michael Munger, To Consumers, All Costs are Transaction Costs, Am. Inst. Econ. Rsch. (June 13, 2023), https://www.aier.org/article/to-consumers-all-costs-are-transaction-costs.

[63] See Katie Robertson, Meta Begins Blocking News in Canada, N.Y. Times (Aug. 2, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/02/business/media/meta-news-in-canada.html; Mark Collom, Australia Made a Deal to Keep News on Facebook. Why Couldn’t Canada?, CBC News (Aug. 3, 2023), https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/meta-australia-google-news-canada-1.6925726.

[64] See id.

[65] Free Speech Coal. Inc. v. Colmenero, No. 1:23-CV-917-DAE, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154065 (W.D. Tex. 2023), available at https://storage.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.txwd.1172751222/gov.uscourts.txwd.1172751222.36.0.pdf.

[66] Id. at 10.

[67] Id.

[68] Id.

[69] Id. at 44.

[70] Geoffrey A. ManneBen Sperry, & Kristian Stout, Who Moderates the Moderators?: A Law & Economics Approach to Holding Online Platforms Accountable Without Destroying the Internet, 49 Rutgers Comput. & Tech. L.J. 26 (2022), https://laweconcenter.org/resources/who-moderates-the-moderators-a-law-economics-approach-to-holding-online-platforms-accountable-without-destroying-the-internet; Geoffrey A. Manne, Kristian Stout, & Ben Sperry, Twitter v. Taamneh and the Law & Economics of Intermediary Liability, Truth on the Market (Mar. 8, 2023), https://truthonthemarket.com/2023/03/08/twitter-v-taamneh-and-the-law-economics-of-intermediary-liability; Ben Sperry, The Law & Economics of Children’s Online Safety: The First Amendment and Online Intermediary Liability, Truth on the Market (May 12 2023), https://truthonthemarket.com/2023/05/12/the-law-economics-of-childrens-online-safety-the-first-amendment-and-online-intermediary-liability.

[71] See Manne, Stout, & Sperry, Twitter v. Taamneh and the Law & Economics of Intermediary Liability, supra note 70; Ben Sperry, Right to Anonymous Speech, Part 2: A Law & Economics Approach, Truth on the Market. (Sep. 6, 2023), httsps://truthonthemarket.com/2023/09/06/right-to-anonymous-speech-part-2-a-law-economics-approach; Manne, Sperry, & Stout, Who Moderates the Moderators?: A Law & Economics Approach to Holding Online Platforms Accountable Without Destroying the Internet, supra note 70.

[72] See Manne, Stout, & Sperry, Who Moderates the Moderators?: A Law & Economics Approach to Holding Online Platforms Accountable Without Destroying the Internet, supra note 70, at 28 (“To the extent that the current legal regime permits social harms online that exceed concomitant benefits, it should be reformed to deter those harms, provided it can be done so at sufficiently low cost.”); Sperry, Right to Anonymous Speech, Part 2: A Law & Economics Approach, supra note 71.

[73] See NetChoice Complaint, NetChoice LLC v. Griffin, NO. 5:23-CV-05105, available at 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154571 (W.D. Ark. 2023), https://netchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/NetChoice-v-Griffin_-Complaint_2023-06-29.pdf.

[74] Id. at para. 13.

[75] See id. at para. 14

[76] See id.

[77] See id. at para 15.

[78] See id. at para 16.

[79] See id.

[80] See id. at para. 17, 19-21

[81] See Ben Sperry, Congress Should Focus on Protecting Teens from Real Harms, Not Targeted Ads, The Hill (Feb. 12, 2023), https://thehill.com/opinion/congress-blog/3862238-congress-should-focus-on-protecting-teens-from-real-harms-not-targeted-ads.

[82] See NetChoice Complaint, supra note 73 at para. 18.

[83] Government Response to the Roadmap for Age Verification, Australian Gov’t Dep’t of Infrastructure, Transp., Reg’l Dev., Commc’ns and the Arts (Aug. 2023), available at https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/government-response-to-the-roadmap-for-age-verification-august2023.pdf.

[84] See Josh Taylor, Australia Will Not Force Adult Websites to Bring in Age Verification Due To Privacy And Security Concerns, The Guardian (Aug. 30, 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/aug/31/roadmap-for-age-verification-online-pornographic-material-adult-websites-australia-law.

[85] See NetChoice Complaint, supra note 73 at 2.

[86] Id. at 6.

[87] See id.

[88] See id. at 6-8.

[89] Supra Part IV.A.

[90] See Children and Teen’s Online Privacy Protection Act, S. 1418, 118th Cong. (2023), as amended Jul. 27, 2023, available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1418/text (last accessed Oct. 2, 2023). Other similar bills have been proposed as well. See Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, S. 1291, 118th Cong. (2023); Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective Act, S. 419, 118th Cong. (2023); Social Media Child Protection Act, H.R. 821, 118th Cong. (2023).

[91] See David Neumark & Peter Shirley, Myth or Measurement: What Does the New Minimum Wage Research Say About Minimum Wages and Job Loss in the United States? (Nat’l Bur. Econ. Res. Working Paper 28388, Mar. 2022), available at https://www.nber.org/papers/w28388 (concluding that “(i) there is a clear preponderance of negative estimates in the literature; (ii) this evidence is stronger for teens and young adults as well as the less-educated; (iii) the evidence from studies of directly-affected workers points even more strongly to negative employment effects; and (iv) the evidence from studies of low-wage industries is less one-sided.”).

[92] See Lisa Sturtevant, The Impacts of Rent Control: A Research Review and Synthesis, at 6-7, Nat’l Multifamily Hous. Coun’cl Res. Found. (May 2018), available at https://www.nmhc.org/globalassets/knowledge-library/rent-control-literature-review-final2.pdf (“1. Rent control and rent stabilization policies do a poor job at targeting benefits. While some low-income families do benefit from rent control, so, too, do higher-income households. There are more efficient and effective ways to provide assistance to lower-income individuals and families who have trouble finding housing they can afford. 2. Residents of rent-controlled units move less often than do residents of uncontrolled housing units, which can mean that rent control causes renters to continue to live in units that are too small, too large or not in the right locations to best meet their housing needs. 3. Rent-controlled buildings potentially can suffer from deterioration or lack of investment, but the risk is minimized when there are effective local requirements and/or incentives for building maintenance and improvements. 4. Rent control and rent stabilization laws lead to a reduction in the available supply of rental housing in a community, particularly through the conversion to ownership of controlled buildings. 5. Rent control policies can hold rents of controlled units at lower levels but not under all circumstances. 6. Rent control policies generally lead to higher rents in the uncontrolled market, with rents sometimes substantially higher than would be expected without rent control. 7. There are significant fiscal costs associated with implementing a rent control program.”).

[93] See Candeub, supra note 16.

[94] Colmenero, supra note 65, at 22.

[95] See Kids Online Safety Act, S. 1409, 118th Cong. (2023), as amended and posted by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science , and Transportation on July 27, 2023, available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1409/text#toc-id6fefcf1d-a1ae-4949-a826-23c1e1b1ef26 (last accessed Oct. 2, 2023).

[96] See id. at Section 3.

[97] Cf. Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, 139 S. Ct. 1921, 1930-31 (2019):

[M]erely hosting speech by others is not a traditional, exclusive public function and does not alone transform private entities into state actors subject to First Amendment constraints…

If the rule were otherwise, all private property owners and private lessees who open their property for speech would be subject to First Amendment constraints and would lose the ability to exercise what they deem to be appropriate editorial discretion within that open forum. Private property owners and private lessees would face the unappetizing choice of allowing all comers or closing the platform altogether.

[98] See Counterman v. Colorado, 600 U.S. 66 (2023); Ben Sperry (@RBenSperry), Twitter (June 28, 2023, 4:46 PM), https://twitter.com/RBenSperry/status/1674157227387547648.

[99] Cf. HØEG v. Newsom, 2023 WL 414258 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 25, 2023); Sperry, The Law & Economics of Children’s Online Safety: The First Amendment and Online Intermediary Liability, supra note 70.

[100] California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, AB 2273 (2022), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220AB2273.

[101] See id. at § 1798.99.32(d)(1), (2), (4).

[102] See Candeub, supra note 16.

[103] NetChoice LLC. v. Griffin, Case No. 5:23-CV-05105 at 25 (Aug. 31, 2023), slip op., available at https://netchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/GRIFFIN-NETCHOICE-GRANTED.pdf.

[104] Id.

[105] Id. at 38 (“Having considered both sides’ positions on the level of constitutional scrutiny to be applied, the Court tends to agree with NetChoice that the restrictions in Act 689 are subject to strict scrutiny. However, the Court will not reach that conclusion definitively at this early stage in the proceedings and instead will apply intermediate scrutiny, as the State suggests.”).

[106] Id. at 48 (“In sum, NetChoice is likely to succeed on the merits of the First Amendment claim it raises on behalf of Arkansas users of member platforms. The State’s solution to the very real problems associated with minors’ time spent online and access to harmful content on social media is not narrowly tailored. Act 689 is likely to unduly burden adult and minor access to constitutionally protected speech. If the legislature’s goal in passing Act 689 was to protect minors from materials or interactions that could harm them online, there is no compelling evidence that the Act will be effective in achieving those goals.”).

[107] See NetChoice v. Bonta, Case No. 22-cv-08861-BLF (N.D. Cal. Sept. 18, 2023), slip op., available at https://netchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/NETCHOICE-v-BONTA-PRELIMINARY-INJUNCTION-GRANTED.pdf; Ben Sperry, What Does NetChoice v. Bonta Mean for KOSA and Other Attempts to Protect Children Online?, Truth on the Market (Sep. 29, 2023), https://truthonthemarket.com/2023/09/29/what-does-netchoice-v-bonta-mean-for-kosa-and-other-attempts-to-protect-children-online.

[108] Id. at 36-38.

[109] See Carl Szabo, NetChoice Sends Veto Request to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on HB 311 and SB 152, NetChoice (Mar. 3, 2023),  https://netchoice.org/netchoice-sends-veto-request-to-utah-gov-spencer-cox-on-hb-311-and-sb-153.

[110] See, e.g., Sable Commcn’s v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989) (“The Government may, however, regulate the content of constitutionally protected speech in order to promote a compelling interest if it chooses the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.”).

[111] Brown, 564 U.S. at 801 (“California claims that the Act is justified in aid of parental authority: By requiring that the purchase of violent video games can be made only by adults, the Act ensures that parents can decide what games are appropriate. At the outset, we note our doubts that punishing third parties for conveying protected speech to children just in case their parents disapprove of that speech is a proper governmental means of aiding parental authority.”).

[112] Brown, 564 U.S. at 801.

[113] Id. at 803

[114] Id.

[115] See supra IV.B.

[116] See Clare Morrell, Adam Candeub, & Michael Toscano, No, Big Tech Doesn’t Have A Right To Speak To Kids Without Their Parent’s Consent, The Federalist (Sept. 21, 2023), https://thefederalist.com/2023/09/21/no-big-tech-doesnt-have-a-right-to-speak-to-kids-without-their-parents-consent (noting “Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent in the Brown case that “the ‘freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.”).

[117] Brown, 564 U.S. at 821.

[118] Id. at 822.

[119] Id. at 805.

[120] Id. at 813.

[121] See, e.g., Ben Sperry, There’s Nothing ‘Conservative’ About Trump’s Views on Free Speech and the Regulation of Social Media, Truth on the Market (Jul. 12, 2019), https://truthonthemarket.com/2019/07/12/theres-nothing-conservative-about-trumps-views-on-free-speech (noting Kavanaugh’s majority opinion in Halleck on compelled speech included all the conservative justices; at the time he and Gorsuch were relatively new Trump appointees); Justice Amy Comey Barrett has also joined the majority opinion in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. 570 (2023), written by Gorsuch and joined by all the conservatives, which found public-accommodations laws are subject to strict scrutiny if they implicate expressive activity.

[122] Clare Morell (@ClareMorellEPPC), Twitter (Sept. 7, 2023, 8:27 PM), https://twitter.com/ClareMorellEPPC/status/1699942446711357731.

[123] Brown, 564 U.S. at 786.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Joanna Shepherd on Campaign Funding and Judicial Decision Making

Presentations & Interviews ICLE Nonresident Scholar Joanna Shepherd and coauthor Michael Kang joined the American Constitution Society’s Broken Law Podcast to discuss their new book “Free to Judge: . . .

ICLE Nonresident Scholar Joanna Shepherd and coauthor Michael Kang joined the American Constitution Society’s Broken Law Podcast to discuss their new book “Free to Judge: The Power of Campaign Money in Judicial Elections.” Audio of the full episode is embedded below.

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