Magazine

Net Losses


REPUBLIC.COM

By Cass Sunstein

Princeton -- 224pp -- $19.95

On the Internet, you can get exactly what you want. There are millions of narrow-interest Web sites. There are customized "newspapers" that give you only the news you care about. It's easy to find comfort in the company of like-minded people through chat rooms, bulletin boards, and e-mail lists. Many Netizens see this profusion of voices as evidence that the First Amendment is working--and they see little reason for government interference. In a widely republished 1996 cyberspace manifesto, John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist, wrote: "Governments of the Industrial World...I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us.... You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear."

All of this worries Cass Sunstein, author of Republic.com. A First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, he fears that the Internet is contributing to a fragmentation of public discourse that is undermining democracy. For democracy to work, Sunstein says, it's important that citizens be exposed to many alternative viewpoints, occasionally encountering information that is unexpected or even jarring. They were more likely to get that exposure, Sunstein says, when they read the same newspapers and magazines, watched the same TV news, and spent more time in public spaces like parks, where they met people with contrasting viewpoints. On the Net today, he says, "many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices." He cites studies showing that people become extreme in their leanings when they spend time with people who feel the same way.

Sunstein thinks the danger to the republic is great enough that he favors government intervention, such as subsidies for Web sites that encourage deliberation by diverse citizens, or requirements that Web sites provide links to other sites that promote opposing views. While some Netizens look forward to a day when legislatures won't be necessary--because citizens will vote instantly on every issue via the Internet--Sunstein says Net plebiscites would short-circuit deliberation, permit tyranny of the majority, and be "a grotesque distortion of founding aspirations."

Republic.com is an updating for the Net era of an old idea: that democracy without cohesion is doomed to fail. To Sunstein, the First Amendment was not only about banning censorship; it was also about getting people to talk with one another. In support of his position, he cites founding father James Madison, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and philosopher John Dewey, among others.

Sunstein's solutions would drive John Perry Barlow nuts. The author favors a new Fairness Doctrine, or something like it, for traditional broadcasters, and maybe something like it for Web sites as well. He even broaches the idea of letting certain Web sites appear on your screen unbidden--the cyber analog of a protester shoving literature into your hands on the sidewalk. The remedies are extreme, to be sure. But Sunstein makes a provocative case that the problem they address is at least as severe. By Peter Coy


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