The Future of Free Expression in a Digital Age

18 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2009

Date Written: January 29, 2009


In the twenty-first century, at the very moment that our economic and social lives are increasingly dominated by information technology and information flows, the judge-made doctrines of the First Amendment seem increasingly irrelevant to the key free speech battles of the future. The most important decisions affecting the future of freedom of speech will not occur in constitutional law; they will be decisions about technological design, legislative and administrative regulations, the formation of new business models, and the collective activities of end-users. Moreover, the values of freedom of expression will become subsumed withing a larger set of concerns that I call knowledge and information policy. The essay uses debates over network neutrality and intermediary liability as examples of these trends.

Freedom of speech depends not only on the mere absence of state censorship, but also on an infrastructure of free expression. Properly designed, it gives people opportunities to create and build technologies and institutions that other people can use for communication and association. Hence policies that promote innovation and protect the freedom to create new technologies and applications are increasingly central to free speech values.

The great tension in twentieth century free speech theory was the increasing protection of the formal freedom to speak against the background of mass broadcast technologies that reserved practical freedom to a relative few. The tension in twenty-first century free speech theory is somewhat different: New technologies offer ordinary citizens a vast range of new opportunities to speak, create and publish; they decentralize control over culture, over information production and over access to mass audiences. But these same technologies also make information and culture increasingly valuable commodities that can be bought and sold and exported to markets around the world. These two conflicting effects - toward greater participation and propertization - are produced by the same set of technological advances. Technologies that create new possibilities for democratic cultural participation often threaten business models that seek to commodify knowledge and control its access and distribution. Intellectual property and telecommunications law may be the terrain on which this struggle occurs, but what is at stake is the practical structure of freedom of speech in the new century.

Keywords: freedom of speech, Internet, cyberlaw, technology, innovation, infrastructure, telecommunications, intellectual property

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., The Future of Free Expression in a Digital Age (January 29, 2009). Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 36, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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