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Regulating Online Conduct: Speech, Privacy, and the Use and Sharing of Content - Fall 2023

In the course of a few short decades, the Internet has become integral to significant swaths of human experience. It has radically altered modes of interpersonal engagement, democratized access to tools of mass communication, and changed the role of gatekeepers that traditionally controlled access to music, video, and other media. Given the breadth of its impact, it is not surprising that the Internet has pushed the bounds of legal doctrines that govern speech, privacy, and the creation and exploitation of content. Mass-scale online distribution of copyrighted works tests the limits of legal doctrines developed in an era of physical copies. Age-old tensions between privacy and the right to free expression have been exacerbated in cases where one’s right to speak bumps up against the desire of another to keep information private. And, the ability to share—and, thus, to consume—extraordinary amounts of personal data has impacted government (which collects and uses data for purposes of law enforcement) and private companies (which collect and use data for purposes of advertising and monetization). This seminar will provide an overview of legal doctrines that govern the online conduct of individuals and institutional actors. It will address the rights and responsibilities of the intermediaries that mediate many of our online activities – social networks, cloud-based storage services, email providers, and the like. Students will consider old and new legal frameworks and the ways in which the law informs strategic decisions for those that operate online. The seminar will address some of the most important and complex policy debates of our day—regarding the proper scope of intellectual property protection; the balance between  a robust environment for online free expression and a desire to protect against harmful speech; and the ways in which the law addresses privacy vis-à-vis both government and private actors. Readings and in-class conversations will cover legal cases and case studies, offering students a high-level view of the technical, legal, and business landscape and allowing them to delve deeply into particularly difficult sets of problems concerning the regulation of online conduct.

For more information about this course, visit the Harvard University Course Catalog.