The idea that the internet should enjoy minimal government oversight precisely because it was a technology that enabled open and free speech for everyone has been turned on its head.
Not too long ago, conventional wisdom held that the internet should enjoy minimal government oversight precisely because it was a technology that enabled open and free speech for everyone. The remedy for hateful and offensive remarks, that 1990s-vintage argument went, was more speech—or logging off.
This principle, which can be traced back through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Stuart Mill, was nicely captured in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1997 decision striking down certain speech-chilling provisions of the Communications Decency Act. “Through the use of chat rooms,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.”
A generation later, Stevens' argument has been not merely discarded. It has been inverted.
Politicians now insist that the internet should be subject to increased regulations precisely because it allows that hypothetical town crier to speak with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any physical soapbox. The possibility of freewheeling online discussions has been transformed, in other words, from virtue to vice. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube increasingly face demands that they restrict content. In some cases the demands are effected through public pressure, in others through outright government censorship.