CHENNAI: The growth of networks was guided by a desire for power and profit. They were not just conduits for conveying information, but mechanisms for forging relationships of control. While the internet is more sophisticated than its predecessors, it continues this tradition. As a result, some are saying that the connectivity it enables is not only making the world smaller but making it worse. They worry about fake news, surveillance, the invasion of our privacy, the exploitation of app-based workers, and the proliferation of right-wing propaganda on social media, to name just a few.
Since 2016, a mood of distrust has congealed around the big tech companies that rule the internet, a mood often called the “techlash.” Polling suggests that public opinion has taken a turn: In 2019, only half of Americans said that tech companies had a positive effect, compared with 71 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. A Gallup poll from 2021 put the number even lower, with only 34 percent of Americans taking a positive view. The belief that the internet is broken has become a new common sense. But if the internet is broken, how do we fix it?
The answers that predominate among American policymakers tend to circle two main themes — which are, in practice, often joined together. The first involves writing new rules about how companies are allowed to behave, or enforcing existing ones. Examples include the California Consumer Privacy Act, a 2018 law that gives residents certain rights regarding the collection and processing of their personal data.
The second aims at reducing the market power of the big firms. Last year, President Biden issued an executive order that directs more than a dozen federal agencies to pursue pro-competition initiatives. And this year, two Senate bills seeking to prevent tech companies from using their control of platforms like search engines and app stores to give themselves an unfair advantage over competitors were approved in committee, bringing them closer to a floor vote.
Both strains of internet reform have their merits. The rule-makers are right that tech companies are too lightly regulated. The anti-monopolists are right that rule-making is insufficient without curbing corporate power. Yet neither quite reaches the root of the problem. The root is simple: The internet is broken because the internet is a business. While the issues are various and complex, they are inextricable from the fact that the internet is owned by private firms and is run for profit. Regulating markets or making them more competitive won’t touch the deeper problem, which is the market itself. MAREA and other cables are, to borrow a metaphor from the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, like veins in a mine. Through them, wealth is extracted and communities are dominated.
The problems that have provoked the techlash are diverse, but none of them would exist if they didn’t contribute to profits. The profit system produces the dysfunctions and depredations of the modern internet. Today’s internet reformers would leave this system intact. Yet many of the industry practices with the most destructive effects, such as the obsession with user engagement, were developed by companies when they were comparatively leaner and hungrier and needed to grab market share as quickly as possible. In other words, they came out of competition, which suggests that increasing competition won’t automatically generate better outcomes.
Regulation, too, presents difficulties: Corporations are adept at evading or manipulating rules to preserve their dominant position. Indeed, some big tech firms have even called for more regulation in recent years, provided they get to decide how they’re regulated.
Even with the best regulatory and anti-monopoly measures, corporations would still own the internet. Immensely consequential decisions would be left in the hands of executives and investors. Most people would have no say in matters that centrally affect their lives. Fortunately, there is another strategy: deprivatisation. To build a better internet, we need to change how it is owned and organised — not with an eye toward making markets work better, but toward making them matter less. Deprivatisation aims at creating an internet where people, and not profit, rule. This sounds like a protest chant but I mean it quite literally.
What would a day on the deprivatised internet look like? You wake up, grab coffee, and sit down at your computer. Your first stop is a social-media site run by your local library. The other users are your neighbours, your co-workers, or residents of your county. There’s a news report in your feed about a coming municipal election, published by a local public media center. In fact, much of the content that circulates on the site comes from public media sources. The site is a cooperative; you and the other users govern it collectively. You elect the board that designs the filtering algorithms and writes the content moderation policies that determine what you see in your feed. The board’s decisions are carried out by employees of the local library, who act as caretakers of the community, always on hand to help classify, curate and add context to information.
This is in stark contrast to Facebook, whose advertising-based business model requires the company to maximise user engagement for profit, which in turn makes it a haven for sensationalist propaganda that drives clicks. Deprivatised social media could optimise for a different set of goals.
Your site might be small, but it’s not isolated. It connects with others to form a broader federation, using the same basic principle as email. (For instance, Gmail and Yahoo Mail are distinct services with distinct features, but users can still exchange messages.) Similarly, you can read posts from, and trade messages with, users from other sites and networks around the world. Your community’s governance is local, but its reach is global. It is a self-organised cell within the wider body of the internet. What about your data? As you click the links in your feed and are transported to other corners of the web, you can be confident that your privacy is secure. That’s because the rights to your personal data are held by a cooperatively owned data trust.
You and the other members get to decide under what conditions an online service has access to your data, and under what conditions more data can be created. For instance, your trust might choose to ban the sort of sweeping surveillance that is so integral to online advertising.
You’ve finished your coffee, and it’s time to get to work. Maybe you don’t live near public transit, so you use an app to call a shared ride. The service is a cooperative, owned by its workers. Unlike Uber and Lyft drivers, these worker-owners have meaningful control over the conditions of their work — they even helped design the app and the algorithms that coordinate their labor. This is one possible future for a deprivatised internet. It’s closer than you think: some of the elements are already emerging in rudimentary form.