The First Amendment in the Second Gilded Age
34 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2018 Last revised: 20 Jan 2019
Date Written: September 9, 2018
How do we pay for the digital public sphere? In the Second Gilded Age, the answer is primarily through digital surveillance and through finding ever new ways to make money out of personal data. Digital capitalism in the Second Gilded Age features an implicit bargain: a seemingly unlimited freedom to speak in exchange for the right to surveil and manipulate end users.
To protect freedom of speech in the Second Gilded Age we must distinguish the values of free speech from the judicially created doctrines of the First Amendment. That is because the practical freedom to speak online depends on a privately owned and operated infrastructure of digital communication to which the First Amendment does not apply. As a result, the protection of digital free expression has increasingly begun to detach from the judicial doctrines of the First Amendment. This makes the First Amendment increasingly irrelevant to protecting digital speech. Indeed, in the Second Gilded Age, the judicially created doctrines of First Amendment law become most important as potential obstacles to reform. They create constitutional difficulties for attempts to regulate private infrastructure owners in order to protect free speech values and personal privacy.
Protecting freedom of speech in the Second Gilded Age requires us to focus on the political economy of digital speech: how we pay for the digital public sphere, the dangers the digital political economy creates for end users, and the kinds of reforms that would best protect their interests in speech and privacy.
This essay uses the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal of March 2018 to explain how the conditions that make free speech possible have changed from the twentieth to the twenty-first centuries. That controversy is a characteristic scandal of the Second Gilded Age because it centers on how digital infrastructure companies make their money and how they affect the public sphere in the process. The scandal also highlights a central problem for freedom of speech in the Second Gilded Age: Digital privacy undergirds our freedom of expression, but the way we pay for freedom of expression perpetually threatens our digital privacy and subjects us to dangers of manipulation and overreaching.
The great irony is that an era that promised unbounded opportunities for freedom of expression is also an era of increasing digital control and surveillance. The same technological advances allow both results. The essay concludes by briefly introducing a reform proposal advocated in my previous work: that we should consider digital media companies as information fiduciaries who have duties of care, confidentiality, and loyalty toward their end users.
Keywords: Second Gilded Age, First Amendment, freedom of speech, data collection, surveillance, privacy, manipulation, social media, Internet, infrastructure, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, information fiduciaries
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation