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“Republic.com” by Cass Sunstein Princeton University Press 224 pages, $19.95 “Time out of mind,” wrote the Supreme Court, streets and parks have been public forums that are held in trust “for purposes of assembly, communicating thought between citizens, and discussing public questions.” But where do people go for information today? In “Republic.com,” Cass Sunstein, professor of both law and political science at the University of Chicago, explores how the public gets information, assembles, and deliberates in the information age and what this means for the republic. Sunstein is a contrarian. While most observers extol the virtues of cyberspace and believe modern communications technologies, like the Internet, enhance free speech by giving everyone a chance to speak, Sunstein has a different view. He worries that people will use the technology to get only the information they want and to filter out the information they don’t want. Thus, he begins his book with the “Daily Me.” “The Daily Me” was the name coined by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nicholas Negroponte for a theoretical, future, personalized news service on the Internet that would allow users to automate the process of selecting the news they want to read. What, Sunstein asks, would be the result if each of us had our own Daily Me? For one thing, he believes, people would lose the opportunity for unplanned exposure to new and different ideas. Few of us read every story on the front page of the daily newspaper, but at least our eyes pass over the headlines. We get exposed to the news the editor of the paper thinks is important, not just what we want to see. For another thing, we all would lose the social glue derived from the shared experiences of reading the same newspaper and watching the same television network. Perhaps more dangerous than the Daily Me, he continues, is the fact that the Internet makes it easy for us to discuss things only with people who think the same way we do. This leads to “group polarization,” meaning that “after deliberation, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined.” Thus, Sunstein warns that modern communications technologies have the potential to isolate individuals, Balkanize thought, and promote extremism. Sunstein doesn’t stop here with his contrarian views. He argues that conventional thinking, which says information is simply another consumer product, is all wrong. Applying economic theory to information doesn’t work: “[I]n a system in which individuals make choices among innumerable options based only on their private interests [the principle that guides consumer free markets], they will fail to learn about topics and views from which they may not much benefit, but from which others would gain a great deal.” “Republic.com” is conceptually two books. In the first, Sunstein pushes hard on his thesis that people will use the freedom of choice that cyberspace gives them to retreat into their own worlds of preconceptions, prejudices, and extremism. Whether his thesis is in fact true is debatable. Most users would say that the Internet broadens, rather than narrows, the amount of information to which they are exposed and that even though they might read a Daily Me on the Internet, they can also read any newspaper in the world online. In the second part, Sunstein turns to the legal issues of the new media. Here, his sharp, lucid discussions of the relationships between government and communications technologies are formidable. The contrarian in Sunstein again comes to the fore as he points out that the founders of our country structured the government as a republic, not a democracy. Their intent was that the people would elect representatives who would meet and deliberate before passing laws. The modern practice of trying to set government policy by daily opinion polls was not at all what the founders had in mind. They would have been appalled by talk of so-called Internet democracy. Sunstein writes of “an often forgotten episode in the very first Congress” where “the nation rejected a proposed part of the original Bill of Rights, a ‘right’ on the part of the citizens to ‘instruct’ their representatives on how to vote.” Sen. Roger Sherman opposed such a right to instruct because: “I think when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by the instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.” Sunstein also attacks the libertarian notion that the Internet is unregulated. This is simply not true, he says. Government created the Internet and oversees the infrastructure that runs it. Government is not going to stand idly by while computer viruses wreak costly havoc around the Internet. It will not allow cyberspace to be reduced to anarchy. Government is far from being powerless to act in cyberspace. It is, to Sunstein, a foregone conclusion that the government regulates. The only questions are how much regulation and what kind. Not even the First Amendment to the Constitution, Sunstein cautions, is the absolute barrier to regulation that many think it is. Government can regulate speech if the regulation is “neutral with respect to the content of the speech at issue.” It can keep hackers from taking over the Web site of a news organization to use as a radical podium. It can prohibit people from attaching computer viruses to their e-mails. It can even regulate speech based on its content if the regulation is “viewpoint neutral.” It can prosecute speakers who explicitly incite criminal acts as long as it doesn’t target speakers whose views it doesn’t like. And, if it doesn’t like all those Daily Me’s, government can subsidize Web sites just as it subsidizes public broadcasting. This book is not a casual introduction to the problems and law of cyberspace. As the title “Republic.com” suggests, Sunstein is driving at how the new communications technologies affect the political relationships among citizens in a republic. He relates the story of the question posed to Benjamin Franklin as he emerged from Convention Hall in Philadelphia after his vote on the Constitution in 1787. “What have you given us?” Franklin was asked. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he answered. Thus, the ultimate question is how to keep a republic in the information age. Sunstein doesn’t have all the answers, but he has some. It requires that people be exposed to new ideas and opposing views. It requires that people avoid the urge to use the technology to congregate with like minds because group polarization leads to extremism. And it requires that information not be treated as a consumer commodity or confused with “infotainment.” “Republic.com” is a timely book, as I discovered while reading it. For 94 years — almost time out of mind — a public forum called Sheridan Circle has been sitting in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. It is a small patch of grass with a bronze statue of Union General Philip Sheridan reining back his horse, Rienze, to rally his men to victory in the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek in 1864. President Theodore Roosevelt called the statue “first-rate” when he dedicated it in 1907. Yet this spring, the Internet came to Sheridan Circle. Protesters put up banners and a mock prison cell, almost as big as Rienze, to draw attention to claims about mistreatment of the Kurds. They aimed their protest at motorists, who had only a second or two to look at any message as they whizzed by. So, rather than explain the cause in detail, the protesters fashioned a banner to direct the reader to the Internet for information. It said simply: “It’s happening again — http://www.kurdistan.org/.” This is a crude example of how to solve the information flow problems that Sunstein writes about, but it drives home his point. How can protesters be heard, and how can each of us be exposed to new ideas and opposing views, if we use technology to wall ourselves off? Sunstein has written a book that is thought-provoking in the most literal sense. It is a book less interested in giving answers than in raising questions, particularly about the rosy predictions for cyberspace. You might not read about “Republic.com” in the Daily Me, but it is a significant book that effectively presents an opposing view. Washington, D.C., lawyer James H. Johnston is also a writer and a frequent contributor to Legal Times. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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