FOUR PRINCIPLES FOR DIGITAL EXPRESSION (YOU WON'T BELIEVE #3!).

Author:Citron, Danielle Keats
Position::Symposium: The Roberts Court's First Amendment
 
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ABSTRACT

At the dawn of the Internet's emergence, the Supreme Court rhapsodized about its potential as a tool for free expression and political liberation. In ACLU v. Reno (1997), the Supreme Court adopted a bold vision of Internet expression to strike down a federal law--the Communications Decency Act--that restricted digital expression to forms that were merely "decent. " Far more than the printing press, the Court explained, the mid-90s Internet enabled anyone to become a town crier. Communication no longer required the permission of powerful entities. With a network connection, the powerless had as much luck reaching a mass audience as the powerful. The "special justifications or regulation of the broadcast media " had no application to the "vast democratic forums of the Internet. "

Twenty years later, the Roberts Court had an opportunity to explain how the First Amendment should operate in the mature Internet of 2017. Despite the interval of time, the Roberts Court of 2017 took a remarkably similar approach to the Rehnquist Court of 1997. In Packingham v. North Carolina, Justice Kennedy announced the start of the "Cyber Age. " The Internet was the virtual public square, much like streets and parks. Because the ".Internet " was still in its infancy, its impact on expression was not fully understood. The expressive potential of the "Internet" would be imperiled in the absence of a hands-off approach. Justice Kennedy noted that someday, the Internet might be used for anti-social ends. Until then, extreme caution was in order so the Internet's democratic potential could be realized.

Contrary to the Court 's thinking, the Internet is no longer in its infancy. It has matured at a breathtaking pace. Virtually all aspects of our public and private lives--politics, child-rearing, work, health, shopping, and sex--involve the Internet. If online discourse ever accorded with the Court's vision, it does not now. Rather than just the virtual town square, the "Internet" is bound up in everything and everywhere-whether the workplace, library, coffee shop, gym, park, public street, town square, or bedroom.

This article debunks the Court's magical thinking about the Internet. The Internet's expressive opportunities are not available to all on equal terms, thanks to the wide availability of personal data. Online platforms highlight favored content while burying disfavored ones. Search engines produce different, and less advantageous, results to people of color and women than to men. Cyber mobs shove people offline with doxxing, swatting, and other privacy-invasive forms of abuse. Online platforms fuel polarization and fdter bubbles, ensuring an electorate without access to a full range of ideas and information. Fake news spreads like wildfire on social media platforms that are often people's main source of information.

We need clear principles to guide and secure meaningful digital free expression. This article charts a path to provide just that. Part I exposes crucial myths surrounding the digital speech and privacy in our networked age. Part II offers a conception of free speech based on a distrust of power, both public and private. Even if doctrinal analysis does not account for private barriers to free expression, the project of free expression should. Part III lays out four essential preconditions for a theory and a system of free expression in the digital age. These preconditions are substantive and procedural. They require legal intervention and extra-legal efforts. They draw some inspiration from due process guarantees and some from commitments to equality. Underlying these principles is a unifying normative commitment: If we want to ensure that our commitment to long-standing democratic theories of free expression survives its translation to the digital environment, we need to take a long, hard look at the digital public sphere we actually have, rather than one that we might want or one that has been advertised to us by Silicon Valley.

INTRODUCTION

At the dawn of the Internet's public emergence, the Supreme Court rhapsodized about its potential for free expression and political liberation. In Reno v. ACLU, (1) the Supreme Court adopted a bold vision of Internet expression in striking down a federal law--the Communications Decency Act--that would have limited digital expression to forms that were merely "decent." Far more than the printing press, the Court explained, the mid'-90s Internet of web pages and chat rooms enabled anyone to become a virtual town crier. Speakers no longer needed the permission of powerful media companies to reach the public, because the Internet levelled the playing field between powerless speakers and powerful printers or broadcasters. Unlike mass media that controlled what content would reach people in their homes, the Internet enabled all manner of speakers and expression to reach the public at large assuming they had a computer, a modem and a phone line. As a result, the Court held that the "special justifications for regulation of the broadcast media" had no application to the "vast democratic forums of the Internet." (2)

Exactly twenty years later, the Roberts Court had an opportunity to explain how the First Amendment should operate in the face of a mature Internet. Despite the lapse of time, and the massive technological shifts to broadband, social media, and ubiquitous smartphones, the Roberts Court of 2017 took a remarkably similar approach to the Rehnquist Court of 1997. In Packingham v. North Carolina, (3) Justice Kennedy announced the start of the "Cyber Age," featuring the Internet as the "modern public square." Because the Internet was still in its infancy, he suggested, its impact on expression could not be fully understood. Law could imperil the Internet's expressive potential. Someday, the Internet might be used for antisocial ends, Justice Kennedy noted, but until then, extreme caution was necessary to protect the Internet's democratic potential. (4)

Contrary to the Court's thinking, the Internet is not a babe in the woods. Nor is it separate from everyday life. Today, virtually all aspects of our public and private lives--politics, child-rearing, work, health, shopping, and sex--involve the Internet. If online discourse ever accorded with the Court's vision, it certainly does not now. Social interaction, intellectual exploration, political and cultural engagement, employment, and all other manner of life's projects involve networked technologies. Rather than just the virtual town square, the Internet is bound up in everything we do and everywhere we do it--whether in the workplace, library, coffee shop, gym, park, street, or old-fashioned town square.

Meanwhile, the Internet's indispensability is paired with its inequality of control and opportunity. Private owners of Internet infrastructure, from content layer to backbone, block, filter, mute, and decrease the visibility of online expression, making it difficult for some to engage in public discourse. Not only do companies determine who participates, but they control what content is available and to whom. Online service providers and search engines tailor people's online experiences based on fine-grained surveillance about their past communications, interactions, and activities. When searching for "financial news," for example, African Americans may see stories on payday loans while whites may see links for low-interest mortgages. People over forty may not see advertisements for employment, thanks to algorithms facilitating Facebook Ads. (5) While government censorship remains a danger, communication and participation in the digital age are imperiled by private power as well as that of the state.

This essay takes a critical look at the theory of the Internet and expression implicit in Reno and Packingham. In so doing, it seeks to debunk some of the Court's magical thinking about the Internet. Contrary to the Court's assumptions, the Internet's expressive opportunities are not available to all on equal terms. Everyone cannot be a virtual town crier as the Court imagined. Private entities serve as powerful gatekeepers to digital expression. The design of our digital infrastructure can preclude people from accessing online platforms. (6) Platforms highlight favored content while burying or blocking disfavored ones (more often unpopular speakers). Search engines produce different, and less advantageous, results to the vulnerable than to the powerful. (7) Cyber mobs shove people offline with doxxing, swatting, and other privacy-invasive forms of abuse. (8) Fake news spreads like wildfire on social media sites, which may be people's main source of information. (9) Internet service providers surveil our online activities, sharing them with online advertisers who tailor the content made visible to us. (10)

Although these massive corporations--whether they call themselves "social media," "tech companies," or "neutral platforms"--hold most of the cards, the First Amendment has almost no application to their policies. The central battleground for free speech and privacy will be fought in corporate boardrooms rather than in the courts. The most important legal instruments governing free speech on the Internet today are not derived from the Constitution, but from contract law--the terms of service governing the relationship between Internet companies and their customers.

Our argument proceeds in three steps. Part I exposes crucial myths surrounding digital speech and privacy in our networked age. Part II offers a conception of free speech based on a distrust of power, both public and private. Even if constitutional doctrine does not account for private barriers to free expression, we argue, the project of free expression must. Part III lays out four essential preconditions for a theory and a system of free expression in the digital age.

Let us be clear at the outset: We remain committed to robust free expression and...

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