This was such a big year for free speech at the Supreme Court—the justices struck down federal bans on dog-fighting videos and on corporate campaign spending—that, like the man who asked for ice on the Titanic, many progressives wondered whether they were getting too much of a good thing. But despite their First Amendment muscle-flexing, the nine Supreme Court justices have far less power over who can speak and who can be heard around the world than do the top lawyers at the world’s most powerful media company: Google. This year, Google introduced a new tool called Government Requests, which records the demands the company gets from foreign governments to turn over user data, or to take down content from YouTube or from the 181 local search engines Google runs around the world (Brazil tops both lists). And Google was praised this year by free-speech advocates for its decision to pull out of China because of fears of hacking and government repression.
But Google, which is also an advertising company, may not remain friendly to free speech forever. That’s why the most important free-speech development this year was the Federal Communications Commission’s embrace of network neutrality—the principle that Internet service providers should be required to treat all content equally and avoid blocking or delaying any sites or applications. The net-neutrality policy was challenged in court by Comcast, which three years ago prevented several customers from using an Internet file-sharing service that competes with Comcast’s own apps. This year a federal court sided with Comcast, but the chairman of the FCC said he would try to resurrect net neutrality under different legal authority. The future of free speech will be resolved, in other words, not only by judges but also by big companies, by regulators and legislators, and, ultimately, by political activists around the world.