Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era

Freedom of expression in the digital era is still a relatively new concept, or so it seems. Although platforms such as MySpace and Facebook entered the scene approximately 20 years ago, very little has been done to regulate them. Facebook isn't the only perpetrator challenging our thoughts and ideas on the First Amendment. All digital platforms have contributed to this perplexing and ongoing issue since the World Wide Web's public appearance in 1993.

Since the '90s and early 2000s, the internet and digital platforms have only exploded. In 2021, there is an estimated 4.2 billion social media users worldwide. You would think that the explosion of the Digital Era would come with a host of new laws and regulations. Still, alas, this is, in my opinion, one of our government's most significant failures - keeping up with the Digital Era.

The last time the U.S. Federal Government made any advances toward regulating the internet, and social media platforms was 26 years ago, in 1996. At that time, Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which aimed at regulating obscene or indecent content online, particularly content of that nature that involved minors. CDA extended protection to platforms where the illegal was posted online by a third party in a section now famously known as 'section 230.' This means that if you post obscene materials on Facebook, only you would be legally liable for the content, even though Facebook allowed the obscene content to be shared on its platform.

Many incidents have arisen from this lack of regulation. Most notable is when children commit suicide over cyberbullying that occurs on social media platforms. The lack of regulation online, and the increasing political polarization, have made Facebook Newsfeed feel like a warzone. Individuals are all too eager to share every thought and derogatory comment that comes to mind. There's even a term for that, 'keyboard warrior.'

These types of incidents, and many others, have pressured Congress to act, which has, in turn, placed pressure on social media companies. Big Tech is now being asked to regulate its content, but this poses new challenges to freedom of expression. David Kaye, a United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, has noticed these challenges. Interestingly, he states the problems we're seeing now aren't new, rather,

"...governments trying to restrict the flow of information, clamp down on criticism, and keep track of citizens. The digital information age provides remarkable access to information and ideas, but by participating in it, we often unknowingly sacrifice our privacy.."

Which begs the question, what are we willing to give up in the Digital Era?

Big Tech will never make the changes it needs to make to protect those most vulnerable unless mandated to do so, clearly, by the government. It is unfortunate, but the truth is that the changes needed will likely drastically change how we socialize on social media. These regulations will also help ensure that platforms take responsibility and accountability for the content they allow online. However, with regulations comes potential overreach. I think the same speech and expression we do not allow in print, radio, or television should not be allowed on digital platforms. As a start, the guidelines we follow in the First Amendment should be applied online and IRL. Keyboard warriors, beware, your time is coming to an end.