Democracy and the Internet: Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.Com. Princeton, Nj. Princeton University Press. Pp. 224. 2001
34 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2001
In Republic.com Professor Cass Sunstein argues that despite its many advantages the Internet may have a deleterious effect on deliberative democracy. This effect might arise through the increasing use of filtering software to select only that information that is consistent with the user's predispositions and beliefs. The great informational advantages of the Internet will not broaden users' horizons; they may narrow them. Moreover, users will begin to form groups on the Internet only with those who share their views, and this will lead to the fractionation known as group polarization. Professor Sunstein, in a companion e-book, Echo Chambers, cites the controversies over Bush v. Gore and the impeachment of President Clinton as examples of the polarization that have plagued our public life and that the Internet fosters. Professor Sunstein considers a range of regulations of Internet use that might ameliorate its adverse effects on democracy, such as requiring websites that advocate a particular point of view to provide hyperlinks to websites that tout an alternative view.
I take issue with Professor Sunstein on three grounds. First, I believe that, so far, the democracy-enhancing aspects of the new communications media are much, much greater than the democracy-threatening aspects. Interestingly, the empirical literature on who uses the Internet and what its effects on them have been suggests that far from narrowing their perspective, Internet use has fostered users' civic engagement and broadened their views. Second, I find that the particular reforms that Professor Sunstein proposes are impracticable and unlikely to work effectively even if practicable. And third, I believe that, conceding for the sake of argument that Professor Sunstein's problems with the Internet are real, the best hope for correction consists of more speech on the Internet through encouraging vigorous competition and broad access.
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