A New Framework

The literature adopting Rawls’s and Sen’s theories as frameworks of analysis for communication policy is sparse, as are policies based on the basic tenets of redistributive justice. The debate that has emerged within this framework can be divided into positions addressing two different strands of communications policy: freedom of expression and equal access to information and the information infrastructure.

Rawlsian Approaches to Media Policy

The most comprehensive work presenting scholars’ theories on both subjects is Liverouw and Farb’s (2003) discussion of information and equity. In differentiating between information policy approaches that employ a vertical perspective—hence taking “the social, economic, and demographic characteristics of different groups as a point of departure...and suggesting] that these characteristics influence, or can even determine, the group’s information needs, access, and use” (p. 506)—and those that employ a horizontal perspective, which sees “significant differences in information access and use among members of social groups as well as up and down the socioeconomic ladder, because of both the nature of information and the varying capacity of individuals to benefit from it” (p. 514), the authors maintain that “a view of social justice as fairness rather than strict equality; and the capability approach-have led some information equity researchers to look beyond the simple distribution of resources as a solution for inequity problems” (p. 519). Their list of thinkers and areas of study affected by this approach includes the role of social networks in information access and use, the concepts of social capital and public goods, and the changing debate surrounding the digital divide and the proper focus needed to bridge it.

Duff (2006) suggests that “a neo-Rawlsian perspective supplies at least some of the co-ordinates of a sociopolitical ideal capable of guiding ethically responsible policymakers in what is known as the information age” (p. 18). He lists half a dozen areas in which he believes neo-Rawlsian propositions should serve as guidelines for a normative theory of the information society, among them freedom of information, protection of privacy, and the closing of the digital divide. With regard to the last, Duff (2011) sees it as a challenge regarding the distribution in postindustrial society of information that is deemed to be information within the postindustrial context that should be resolved in compliance with Rawlsian normative guidance. Douglas (2015) uses the Rawlsian notion of justice embedded in a social contract as a means to develop a theory of Internet regulation that he believes can serve as an alternative to theories basing access to the Internet on human rights that raise objections for creating “rights inflation.”

Drale (2004) categorizes Rawls’s theory among deontological theories of democracy, which are focused on the participatory elements of decision making. Public television, public access television, low-power broadcast frequencies, unfettered Internet access, and diversity are policies she cites as serving this procedural approach. Redish and Klaudis (1999) argue that the right of access, and the type of policies that it invokes under the guise of distributive justice, has merely a redistributive effect on privately owned economic resources and is therefore endangering freedom of expression. Heyman (1999), on the other hand, developed an intermediate scrutiny procedure for the analysis of the constitutionality of state-supported speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, utilizing principles derived from distributive justice. In devising a model for rich public debate, Chin (1997) utilizes Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” as a mechanism that can support the construction of equal sets of speakers in the “public square” to be able to calculate increases in the inequality of speech power.

Distributive justice in general and its Rawlsian interpretation in particular have also been seen as inadequate to serve as the basis for a discussion of communication policy. Thus, Collins (2004) finds that Rawlsian arguments fail to fully take into account the impact of network externalities and, therefore, may lead to suboptimal results when applied to policies seeking fair and universal service. In particular, he claims that the Rawlsian model is “undynamic” because “he constructs his distributional calculus as both a zero sum game and one where the goods that are up for distribution already exist. Rawls doesn’t consider adequately the problem of creation of resources” (p. 33).

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