Protecting Speech on the Internet: Regulating Communication in the Digital Age 
April 30, 4:00-5:30  M-RCBG Conference Room (Belfer 503)

At the March 2018 congressional hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia opened the hearings by stating, “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.” Senator Warner was no doubt responding to the growing fear, shared by many in America and Europe, of the invasive and manipulative practices surrounding the Internet. The time had come for law and order. 

2018 was the Year of Reckoning for the Internet. US intelligence agencies have concluded that foreign powers used social media to interfere with US elections. Facebook was central to the story and had the dubious distinction of ending 2018 both the most visited social network in the world and the least trusted of all tech companies. Today, more than three billion people around the world share their private information on Facebook and acquiesce to Facebook’s business of reselling their data. Those who feel threatened, find themselves confounded.  Few understand the technologies they use every day, so the public reacts with what has meaning – their right to privacy and an abhorrence of surveillance. 

The unfolding forensics – of how Facebook, Google and others are misusing and profiting from the use of our data – have stirred our defenses. We protest loss of privacy and blame what we loosely understand as “data.” Yet the linkage between misuse of data and attacks on the integrity of speech remains obscure. While data and privacy are important, even central, to the larger issue, wielding a blunt instrument in their defense may cause more harm than good. Restricting data and fully protecting privacy may well solve the problems we face, but in doing so we will forfeit much of the value of the Internet.
With our increased vulnerability, we have greater need than ever for public oversight. Around the globe, countries are crafting regulation and censorship to curb the power of American tech giants. America faces the mighty task of safeguarding its citizens’ rights while guaranteeing the continued growth that has provided the world with such extraordinary innovations. We need to begin formulating a holistic policy for protecting our institution of speech in this new digital age.

This session will present a framework for understanding speech on the Internet, especially how it differs from communication in traditional media, such as print, radio, and television.  It focuses on four capabilities – what my work calls “superpowers” – that endow Internet communicators with unusual powers and contends that these powers must be reckoned with. This session will also begin to explore potential interventions by government, citizens, and new technologies that together will ensure the healthy functioning of communication on the Internet, now and in the future.
This work focuses on four “superpowers”: Interactivity, Intelligence, Immediacy, and Identity Freedom.  While these capabilities produce much of the value of the Internet, they each have a darker side as well:  

•    Interactivity produces data, which powers both SERVICE and SURVEILLANCE
•    Intelligence delivers PERSONALIZATION, but also TARGETING
•    Immediacy is always AVAILABLE, but also becomes INVASIVE
•    Identity Freedom provides ALIASES and ANONYMITY where desirable, but diminishes TRUTHFULNESS and  ACCOUNTABILITY

I examine these through the lens of what I call CHOICE, TRANSPARENCY, and REACH (CTR). In brief, CTR is a model of how speakers decide what to say, who to be, and whom to reach, and how listeners decide what speech to surround themselves with, what to listen to, and how the context of speech informs their understanding.  

The analysis aims to identify where breakdowns might occur in the collaboration between speakers and listeners called communication, and how policy, citizen awareness, and smart software might combine to help remedy these breakdowns – to help Internet users gain more of the good, while protecting against the potential harm, of this new medium.

Steve Johnson photoSteve Johnson has been a technologist, entrepreneur, private investor, and philanthropist for thirty years, professionally specializing in building innovative technologies into successful enterprises, with a personal and philanthropic focus on education, climate change awareness, the arts, and gay rights equality.  Steve was born and raised in Los Angeles, earning a Bachelor of Arts in economics from University of Southern California in 1980 and an MPP from Harvard Kennedy School in 1985.  He left a PhD. program at Harvard in 1990 to start a technology company based upon his invention of a digital means of transmitting sound and images over telephone lines (now known as ‘streaming media’), which was integrated into America Online in 1993 and enabled the first availability of images, sound and video in an online service, a precursor to the Web in 1995.  He has been a technology investor and entrepreneur (and avid marathoner and mountaineer) in the Boston area since 1999, founding companies in ad technology, Web personalization, and medical IT.  Steve served as chairman of the board of trustees of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater from 2013-17, a theater committed to broadening the impact of theater on community, ideas, and understanding.  Since 2005, Steve has been spearheading efforts in New South Wales, Australia to honor and seek justice for hundreds of victims of gay hate crimes that ravaged the Australian gay community in the 1980s and 1990s, and took the lives of dozens of men, including Steve’s younger brother, Scott, in Sydney in 1988.  This effort helped presage a national plebiscite for gay marriage legalization, which was finally passed in December 2017.  Long committed to education and the arts, the Johnson family helped found the first (and still only) non-denominational independent high school in Orange County, California, Sage Hill High School, which opened in 2000 in Newport Beach, CA.  As a Senior Fellow, his research is entitled The First Amendment and the Internet: Choice, Transparency, and Reach, How A.I. Can Advance and Protect Free Speech.  His faculty sponsor is Nicco Mele, Director, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. Email: