Alexander Hamilton Institute board member Dean Ball—formerly with the Hoover Institution’s State and Local Governance Initiative, and as of this month a research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center—continued his analysis of emerging information technology with a recent commentary that asks: “Who Governs the Internet?”

Policymakers, Mr. Ball writes in his “Hyperdimensional” online newsletter focused on artificial intelligence (AI), “don’t actually want to do the work of governing the internet” because it’s so difficult. The European Union has made governments “a kind of meta-regulator … on top of corporations who … serve as the real regulators—often against their will.” American policymakers, too, are taking such a path in an initially more limited way, with states enacting laws requiring age verification for social media platforms to protect minors.

The laws do not say how it all should work. Although the courts may invalidate the age verification requirements, it’s nonetheless clear that government—unwilling to perform key regulatory functions—is delegating such responsibilities to the technology companies. If they are performed poorly or are perceived to be, companies will be “sued, fined, or both.”

“This does not strike me as a desirable or sustainable dynamic,” Mr. Ball warns. In addition to the likelihood of cramping the industry’s dynamism, “it’s entirely unclear whether any of these laws will work.” The EU’s Digital Markets Act will probably “just lead to another round of government-mandated pop-ups, banners, set-up screens, and the like, for European smartphone users.” Many children in the U.S. “will probably be able to get around … age verification laws,” with troubling implications: “What will this teach them about the value of obeying laws … the competence of our government?”

We “seem to be sleepwalking” into a public-private regulatory hybrid in which tech corporations will be “quasi-state actors,” Mr. Ball observes. Congress’s lengthy history of deputizing “many of its core functions to … executive branch agencies” has resulted in “unaccountable bureaucracies, unpredictable enforcement … a host of other ills. I foresee similarly bad consequences if government deputizes core state functions to better funded and more knowledgeable technology companies.”

Government should “build new capabilities” allowing it to properly regulate the internet and AI, not “expect someone else to do the hard part.” More fundamental, “and even more difficult,” is that policymakers must “recognize that the internet is not their unambiguous jurisdiction, especially if we are to maintain our commitment to freedom of speech, association, and individual choice. The internet is a force to be contended with, not a territory to command at will.”