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  The Future of Free Speech  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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Illustrations bt JITEN SUCHEDE

Cass Sunstein

My purpose here is to cast some light on the relationship between democracy and new communications technologies. I do so by emphasising the most striking power provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what it is that they see. In the extreme case, people will be fully able to design their own communications universe. They will find it easy to exclude, in advance, topics and points of view that they wish to avoid. I will also provide some notes on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

An understanding of the dangers of filtering permits us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. Above all, I urge that in a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quire irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems; people may even find it hard to understand one another.

A Thought Experiment: Unlimited Filtering

The central puzzle is a thought experiment: an apparently utopian dream, that of complete individuation, in which consumers can entirely personalise (or “customise”) their own communications universes.

Imagine, that is, a system of communications in which each person has unlimited power of individual design. If people want to watch news all the time, they would be entirely free to do exactly that. If they dislike news, and want to watch football in the morning and situation comedies at night, that would be fine too. If people care only about America, and want to avoid international issues entirely, that would be very simple indeed; so too if they care only about New York, or Chicago, or California. If people want to restrict themselves to certain points of view, by limiting themselves to conservatives, moderates, liberals, vegetarians, or Nazis, that would be entirely feasible with a simple “point and click.”

In such a system, the market for information would be perfected in the sense that consumers would be able to see exactly what they want, no more and no less. When filtering is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing.

Our communications market is moving rapidly toward this apparently utopian picture. Any report on the details will quickly become dated, but as of this writing, a number of newspapers allow readers to create filtered versions, containing exactly what they want, and excluding what they do not want. If you are interested in getting help with the design of an entirely individual paper, you can consult a number of sites, including individual.com and crayon.com. In reality, we are not so far from the thought experiment of complete personalisation of the communications network. Thus MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte refers to the emergence of “the Daily Me” — a communications package that is personally designed, with components fully chosen in advance.

Precursors and Intermediaries

Of course, this is not entirely different from what has come before. People have always had a great deal of power to filter out unwanted materials. People who read newspapers do not read the same newspaper; some people do not read any newspaper at all. People make choices among magazines based on their tastes and their point of view. But in the emerging situation, there is a difference of degree if not of kind. What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries. These include newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.

People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with diverse others, and also exposure to material that they did not exactly choose. You might, for example, read the city newspaper, and in the process come across a range of stories that you would not have selected if you had the power to do so. Your eyes may come across a story about Germany, or crime in Los Angeles, or innovative business practices in Tokyo, and you may read those stories although you would hardly have placed them in your “Daily Me.” You might watch a particular television channel — perhaps you prefer Channel 4 — and when your favourite programme ends, you might see the beginning of another show, one that you would not have chosen in advance. Reading Time magazine, you might come across a discussion of endangered species in Madagascar, and this discussion might interest you, even affect your behaviour, although you would not have sought it out in the first instance. A system in which individuals lack control over the particular content that they see has a great deal in common with a public street, where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including perhaps political protests and begging). I will return to this point below.

Politics, Freedom and Filtering

One question, which I mean to answer in the affirmative, is whether individual choices, perfectly reasonable in themselves, might produce a large set of social difficulties. Another question, which I also mean to answer in the affirmative, is whether it is important to maintain the equivalent of street corners, or ‘commons’, where people are exposed to things quite involuntarily.

More particularly, I seek to defend a particular conception of democracy — a deliberative conception — and to evaluate, in its terms, the outcome of a system with perfect power of filtering. I also mean to defend a conception of freedom, associated with the deliberative conception of democracy, and oppose it to a conception that sees consumption choices by individuals as the very embodiment of freedom.

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Cass Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago. This article borrows from his forthcoming book Republic.com, to be published by Princeton University Press