Thinking Hard About Internet Platforms: Introducing the AEI Digital Platforms and American Life Project

By Adam J. White

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Amazon—glance even briefly at the latest headlines, and it’s impossible to miss the significance of social media and other internet platforms in modern life, especially if you’re reading the headlines in your social media feed.

Internet platforms are where we exchange goods and services and, most important here, ideas. Admittedly, “internet platforms” is a nebulous category; there are vast differences between, say, Instagram and Amazon. But these companies have a few important things in common, and they play an unprecedented combination of roles in our daily lives. In all of this, they now present profoundly difficult social, cultural, and political questions for policymakers and all of us.

It is no coincidence, moreover, that debates about the platforms have not fallen along the traditional right-left divide. Instead, the most interesting disagreements about regulating internet platforms have not been between the right and left, but within the right and left. The modern conservative movement is grappling with competing values, including free markets, national security, and the protection of children; progressives, too, are trying to strike new balances.

Within each debate, politicians, activists, and analysts are all attempting to win the argument and set the policy agenda. At a moment when policymakers are undecided on the best course and positions have yet to harden, institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute can foster better conversations.

AEI’s Digital Platforms and American Life Project was our answer to that need. With generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we hosted a broad series of roundtable conversations called the Digital Governance Working Group over two years on myriad aspects of the issues confronting us about internet platforms: economic, technological, educational, regulatory, civic, and more. For each meeting, AEI scholars invited practitioners and academics from across specialties and ideologies. Their discussions were the foundation for the series of reports that you can now read here.

And like those conversations, these reports cover a wide range of questions, such as:

• Social media’s effects on our informational environment and whether it should be regulated as a “common carrier”;

• How the US government might best approach and adapt to fast-changing technologies;

• How artificial intelligence will—and won’t—improve content moderation;

• How the federal government might improve poorer communities’ access to broadband internet services, particularly for the sake of aiding education and health; and

• How the US can best lead the international community on these issues.

We also have a long report from John Samples, of the Facebook Oversight Board, reflecting on the lessons he has learned about social media content moderation and government regulation. And we feature a report from AEI’s Christine Rosen on how to think about social media companies’ civic responsibilities.

The reports, like the working groups before them, are not intended to be the last word on any subject. Rather, we hope they will foster further discussions.

As it happens, the first of those discussions occurred at AEI, in a September 2022 conference, where several of the authors discussed their reports with other experts. Later, Samples and Richard Epstein discussed their reports on social media regulation with me on a podcast. Most recently, Alex Feerst discussed his report on artificial intelligence and social media content moderation in an AEI webinar.

We hope that more will follow. Eventually, Congress will need to make truly generational decisions, in the form of legislation that will create new regulatory frameworks or preserve space for free-market innovation—or, most likely, both. Laws enacted decades or even a century ago, regulating communications, commerce, capital markets, and more, continue to govern us today. Congress’s laws on social media and other internet platforms may have similarly far-reaching effects. Will future generations be governed by laws that were framed carefully and thoughtfully for the long run?

Adam J. White, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, oversaw the AEI Digital Platforms and American Life Project and Digital Governance Working Group.