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How to Make the Internet Safe for Democracy

It is the nature of networks to reward scale, and it is not clear how a company like Facebook could be broken up. But we need to recognize that while digital discourse must be curated by the private companies that host it, such power cannot be exercised safely unless it is dispersed in a competitive marketplace.

STANFORD – In October, a confrontation erupted between one of the leading Democratic candidates for the US presidency, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Warren had called for a breakup of Facebook, and Zuckerberg said in an internal speech that this represented an “existential” threat to his company. Facebook was then criticized for running an ad by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign that carried a manifestly false claim charging former Vice President Joe Biden, another leading Democrat contender, with corruption. Warren trolled the company by placing her own deliberately false ad.

This dustup reflects the acute problems social media pose for American democracy – indeed, for all democracies. The Internet has in many respects displaced legacy media like newspapers and television as the leading source of information about public events, and the place where they are discussed. But social media have enormously greater power to amplify certain voices, and to be weaponized by forces hostile to democracy, from Russian trolls to American conspiracy theorists. This has led, in turn, to calls for the government to regulate Internet platforms in order to preserve democratic discourse itself.

But what forms of regulation are constitutional and feasible? The US Constitution’s First Amendment contains very strong free-speech protections. While many conservatives have accused Facebook and Google of “censoring” voices on the right, the First Amendment applies only to government restrictions on speech; law and precedent protect the ability of private parties like the Internet platforms to moderate their own content. In addition, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act exempts them from private liability that would otherwise deter them from curating content.

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