WASHINGTON (Nov. 1, 2021)—Over the past several years, persistent and troubling problems with many of the internet’s online platforms and public spaces have come to light. In particular, the manner in which these platforms manage user content and communications has been a source of consternation both for platforms and users.

As a result, trust has broken down between the general public and major technology and social media companies. Facebook is just the latest company to have its troubles examined in the unforgiving media spotlight. As the challenges that face internet companies continue to pile up, governments around the world are beginning to write and propose laws to regulate companies that host content online.

However, the internet is more than just Facebook, and the harms wrought by certain types of online content and behavior are complex. Despite the urgency and severity of the circumstances, it is critical to avoid rash solutions that could pose substantial risk for free expression and future competition. In the United States in particular, the government clearly has a role to play with regard to both illegal content and harmful but lawful content. But to what extent the government should intervene to deliver meaningful benefits and minimize harmful externalities remains an open question.

In a new policy study, Chris Riley, R Street Institute’s resident senior fellow for Internet Governance, offers a comprehensive, affirmative framework for improving the state of online content management, without modifying Section 230.

Riley proposes four principles that act as a roadmap for potential legislative development, without imposing regulatory overreach:

  1. Uphold, but do not privatize, the law

  2. Protect consumers

  3. Empower critical community

  4. Target specific concerns with specific solutions

“Regulating speech and speech-related activity online is complex and not to be taken lightly. Each of these proposals merits deeper research and broader perspectives on potential effect from a range of stakeholders,” states Riley. “Nevertheless, Congressional action is indicated in due course, for both endogenous reasons that reflect the scale and perception of continued harm, as well as exogenous reasons that underscore the importance of re-establishing U.S. normative leadership in internet governance.”

As this issue is adjudicated publicly and privately, it is crucial to remember that internet companies are increasingly woven through every-day life and rash regulation—even crafted with the best intentions—can create shockwaves that we cannot forecast.

While government has a role to play, the key to ensuring sufficient, sustained, and evolving responsibility from online platforms is engaging the surrounding critical community of researchers, advocates and other businesses. A collaborative approach such as this will be far more effective than traditional government functions of setting and attempting to enforce specific behavioral practices by companies.

Read the full report here.