This Article is the first to elaborate the theory of virtual governments as a concept to understand Internet platforms. The theory postulates that large Internet platforms are virtual governments in two senses: (1) they rule the virtual world online, and (2) they operate as governments even though not formally recognized as such. With this understanding, we are in a better position to identify how to improve online governance with respect to content moderation: Internet platforms should compare their policies, procedures, and safeguards—or lack thereof—to the standards of due process, transparency, and accountability applied to national governments in democracies.
These reforms will compensate for the democratic deficit that undermines the legitimacy of virtual governments’ online governance of people. By the same token, recognizing Internet platforms as virtual governments also militates in favor of national governments affording them comity and mutual respect. Efforts by national governments to break up virtual governments should be viewed with great scrutiny, as would be applied if one national government tried to break up the government of a state or another country. Like federalism, a principle of virtual comity helps protect individual liberties by dispersing powers among different actors— which in turn operates as an important check on national governments. Even (or especially) when there is a backlash against Internet platforms, adhering to a principle of virtual comity helps to disperse power over the Internet so it is not concentrated within a national government.