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Experts Discuss Social Media Regulation, Decline of Local News at HKS Event

Online communications and privacy experts spoke at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center event Wednesday.
Online communications and privacy experts spoke at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center event Wednesday. By Emily T. Schwartz
By William C. Mao and Emily T. Schwartz, Contributing Writers

Experts in online communications and privacy spoke about social media platform regulation and the decline of local news at an event hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday.

The panel included Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, former Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, and Tracy Chou, CEO of online privacy app Block Party.

The talk, moderated by Nancy R. Gibbs — director of the HKS Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and former managing editor of TIME Magazine — focused on how online content should be moderated.

Minow pointed to the increased reliance on the internet, highlighting the need for better regulation of what has effectively become a public utility.

“If we all are so dependent on the internet to do anything, that starts to look an awful lot like the water supply and the electrical supply, and we came up with legal frameworks that justify regulation there,” she said.

Rosenworcel, however, explained that the FCC’s regulation of airwaves — which historically supervised traditional public media like radio and television — could not completely translate to the internet.

“When we had television stations that relied on public airwaves, that spectrum was a legal and technical hook for action,” Rosenworcel said.

“What we don’t have with this new era is the same legal and technical basis for action,” she added.

Still, issues of moderating online discourse have been brought to the nation’s highest court, though Minow argued that the Supreme Court does not have the relevant expertise to rule on internet regulation. She pointed to past cases involving technology where the court lacked practical understanding.

“Is the Supreme Court the place to be working this out?” she said. “Absolutely not.”

“I can’t get out of my mind the image [of] when they had the violent video game case, there was only one justice who’d ever seen a video game,” Minow added.

Instead, Minow suggested that social media platforms could slow down posting to effectively minimize harmful activity.

“There’s no First Amendment barrier to slowing down distribution,” Minow said. “There’s no right, in other words, to have speedy distribution.”

Chou said she advocates for alternative third-party services consumers could use to further filter their social media feeds, allowing the government and social media platforms to regulate less and giving users more control of what they see online.

The panelists also noted how the shift to online news has exacerbated the declining readership of local news. With more than two newspapers closing each week — creating “local news deserts” all over the country — Minow said that democracy is at risk.

“It is absolutely a crisis,” she said. “When a community loses its local news, corruption in the public sector goes up, corruption in the private sector goes up, and voting goes down.”

Minow emphasized that the press is the only private industry mentioned in the U.S. Constitution — and clearly central to the nation.

“It is one of the presuppositions of the United States Constitution that there will be a press, and at the rate we are going, we will not have a press,” she said. “We certainly will not have local news.”

“If we have designed our rules in a way that we can’t sustain the preconditions for our form of government, that’s suicide,” Minow added. “So I think it’s a wake-up call.”

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