land is broad-band
Almost since its inception, the Internet has been lauded as an
equalizing force in the struggle between classes, the great democratizer,
a voice for the voiceless. Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn
professor of jurisprudence in the Law School, is as optimistic
as the next guy about the Internet's ability to change how we
communicate. But he warns of a dark side to the equation-while
the Internet may be the answer to our prayers as consumers, it
could cripple us as citizens.
a world in which you read only what you want to read, see only
what you want to see, listen only to opinions that echo your own.
This is the Internet Sunstein warns us about in his book Republic.com
(Princeton, 2001), a world that allows people to program a "Daily
Me," tailoring their Internet experiences so precisely that
they never have to worry about coming across random opinions or
bits of information that may change their lives.
of people are engaging in a form of self-insulation," cautions
Sunstein. "A good democracy requires a shared culture and
exposure to ideas and points of view you didn't explicitly choose
in advance. So my central argument is that a democratic system
really depends on general interest intermediaries rather than
freedom of choice."
"general interest intermediaries" Sunstein means traditional
media-your morning paper, your evening broadcast, your weekly
newsmagazine. These intermediaries offer enough random information,
diversity of opinion, and shared experiences-Sunstein's three
"keys" to a well-functioning system of democratic free
expression-to keep everyone in the same conversation.
already Internet users can program news Web sites to filter out
material, a technology that puts consumerism ahead of citizenship.
"The real question is, 'What can we do to enlist our technologies
in the service of democratic goals?'" says Sunstein, "instead
of worrying about whether or not the status quo today is better
than the status quo 20 years ago. We should see our speech universe
as citizens, not just consumers. We should ask what this new institution
does for democracy."
became interested in these questions when he served on the Presidential
Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television
Broadcasters in 1998, an advisory board that investigated how
broadcasters could foster democracy by offering such services
as free air time for political candidates, educational programming
for children, and better access for the disabled. The experience
made him consider when government intervention is inconsistent
with -and when it promotes-free speech.
regulation is essential to maintaining the Internet as part of
a deliberative democracy, Sunstein believes. In making certain
Internet activities illegal-such as child pornography, commercial
fraud, and the distribution of e-mail viruses-the government has
already established a presence in the digital world. The question
is not whether the government should intervene, he claims, but
how. "A lot of Internet users think that they are opposed
to government regulation," he says, "but the official
creed of Internet users-that is, opposition to government regulation-doesn't
reflect how they really operate in the virtual world."
suggests preventing the polarization of Internet communities by
subsidizing public Web sites and enacting "must carry"
rules requiring highly partisan sites to include links to sites
with opposing viewpoints. But he also emphasizes the responsibility
of individual citizens and private businesses to maintain open
minds and open lines of communication. By voluntarily self-regulating
their sites and creating "deliberative domains" in which
opposing parties can discuss their differences, citizens and businesses
can keep government intervention to a minimum.
Sunstein believe anyone will take his suggestions seriously? "Actually,
I am most optimistic that people in the private sector would promote
deliberative domains," he says. "In terms of what the
government will do, you can never know. Our best hope lies in
preventive, democracy-friendly activity in the private sector."
In other words, the responsibility of maintaining a functioning
democracy in America still lies where it belongs-in the hands
of the people.-C.S.