Another Internet is possible if you believe it

David Elliot Berman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Victor Pickard is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center.

The spiritDetroit, Michigan mural by Waleed Johnson, 2021. Source

The Internet is facing multiple crises. From algorithmically fueled disinformation on Facebook to communities abandoned by large Internet service providers, the tension between the profit interests of digital monopolies and the public interest is stark. There is a growing consensus that the internet we have is not the internet we want or need. In recent years, a diverse range of thinkers have begun coalescing around bold ideas to radically democratize the internet, from the pipes that connect us to the internet to the platforms that distribute news and information.

The Media, Inequality and Change Center recently brought together some of these scholars and activists to reflect on a key question: What does an internet look like for people? Fundamental to reinventing a more democratic and just digital world is an honest confrontation with the limits of a hyper-capitalist Internet saturated with market logic, from targeted advertising to digital redlining. Such an assessment should force us to ask: how can we take the Internet outside the market? How can we decommodify, deprive, de-commercialize what has been fully naturalized as commercial space? And we can imagine a Truly public internet, dedicated to meeting the needs of the people in a multiracial democracy, not the profit imperatives of a few corporate giants and tech oligarchs?

The dominant paradigm: the tinkerers and the fixers

We are all tech critics now. While the corporate leviathans of the digital age are subject to widespread criticism, this criticism is often narrow and procedural, marked by a curious absence of political-economic criticism that questions ownership and control structures. Our technological imagination is surrounded by a widespread respect for the property rights and business models of Silicon Valley and telecommunications companies. Reform efforts in the United States have generally tried to straddle the fringes of the sprawling business empires of Comcast and Facebook.

The dominant paradigm of Internet criticism is based on the proposition that while corporate profit interests and the public interest are not always aligned, they can be reconciled through enlightened and insightful public policy. Adherents of the dominant paradigm seek not to kill digital giants, but to tame their worst impulses. An algorithmic tweak here, a touch of competition policy there. Perhaps if Twitter or Facebook had a more enlightened billionaire at the helm, all would be well in Silicon Valley.

What the dominant paradigm of tech critique ultimately suggests is that we can reform the internet from within the coordinates of our current profit-driven internet system, that we can tinker and modify our way out of the structural crises plaguing our systems of information and communication. This brutal state of affairs is presented not only as redeemable, but also as inevitable. As James Muldoon laments, channeling Fredric Jameson’s famous aphorism about our inability to contemplate alternatives to capitalism: It has become easier for us to imagine humans living forever in colonies on Mars than to exercise meaningful democratic control over digital platforms .

Democrats: Building a New Internet in the Shell of the Old

One of our goals at the MIC Center in organizing the Democratizing the Internet symposium was to bring together visionaries whose critique is deeper and whose political imagination for the future of the Internet is broader than the tinkerers. This cohort of thinkers relates the multiple maladies plaguing the contemporary Internet to its underlying political economy. From this perspective, there is a structural antagonism between Internet owners and its users, between the profit interests of digital monopolists and the public interest in an open and empowering Internet. In other words: We can have an Internet that works for Silicon Valley and telecom companies, or we can have an Internet that works for people. But we can’t have both.

The failure of the digital giants to serve any semblance of democracy has inspired numerous attempts to create a more democratic and egalitarian internet. To point out a concrete example of this alternative system: Over the past twenty years, cities and towns across the country have taken it upon themselves to build their own broadband networks. Today, more than nine hundred communities in the United States offer high-speed Internet access to their residents. In general, these networks are cheaper, faster and work more democratically than the networks owned by Comcast, Verizon and other corporate Internet service providers. For example, Chattanooga, Tennessee launched its fiber-optic network in 2010 and now offers a one gigabit per second connection to 180,000 homes and businesses in its service area. Rather than siphoning profits from executives or large institutional investors on Wall Street, the surplus generated by Chattanoogas’ broadband network is used to subsidize free high-speed Internet access for low-income residents.

Public broadband therefore foreshadows what an alternative communications system might look like that is committed to maximizing the public good rather than corporate profits. It refutes the assumption that the internet can only be provided by for-profit telecom giants who perpetuate digital inequalities based on exclusion and extraction. Municipal broadband networks along with small-scale community broadband projects serving marginalized neighborhoods in places like North Philadelphia and Detroit are examples of what Erik Olin Wright calls true utopias, springing not from idealistic fantasies, but as practical attempts to create spaces and institutions free from domination. So another Internet is not only possible, but its germinations are already here.

Further up the tech stack, a number of efforts are underway to implement radically new ownership and governance models for social media platforms. Researchers at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure argue for a transition from mega-platforms like Facebook to a pluriverse characterized by a multitude of very small online platforms (or VSOPs) where governance decisions are made by the communities using them. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider propose applying the cooperative tradition to social media to create a platform ecosystem free from surveillance and exploitation. Others, such as James Muldoon and Ben Tarnoff, reject the centralized state governance of platforms in favor of bottom-up worker control and user democracy. While the precise methods by which non-commercial platforms will be governed are not yet defined, there is a broad consensus among these platform radicals that the dominant social media of our time suffers, above all, from a lack of democracy and public accountability.

In fact, it’s safe to say that the internet is failing today. Its democracy fails and a significant part of the problem is commercial ownership and control over the internet at every level. Democratizing the internet and taking it out of business requires focusing on multiple levels, from the underlying material infrastructure of the internet to the platforms that power our social media and online searches.

We need to understand how the hyper-commercialized internet has developed to see how we can dismantle it and build on the democratic experiments that are already emerging. We need to build public internet networks like municipal broadband to address digital inequalities. And we need to keep experimenting with new social media models. While municipal broadband and alternative social media platforms may currently be relatively small in size, they point to a much larger policy agenda for democratizing the internet.

Conclusion

From Facebook’s surveillance advertising to Elon Musk’s chaotic reign on Twitter, the social media ecology that emerged in the 2010s is now crumbling. As their business models falter, the tech oligarchs’ hegemony over the public imagination is diminishing as well. The Internet is therefore at a critical moment.

Now is the time it should be the time for radical projects and even utopian visions that go beyond simply changing algorithms or implementing better platform moderation policies. As important as these things are, small reforms won’t provide the democratic internet we all need. To do that, we must ultimately assert more public oversight, scrutiny, and yesproperty of the internet.

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Image Source : techpolicy.press

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