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This 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.

PHOTO:  The land is broad band.

Imagine 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.

"Millions 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."

By "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.

But 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."

Sunstein 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.

Government 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."

He 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.

Does 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.


 


  APRIL 2001

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