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Mr. Tarnoff is a writer and co-founder of the magazine Logic and the author of the forthcoming book “Internet for the People,” from which this essay has been adapted.
At the bottom of the ocean there is a garden hose stuffed with glass. Life is difficult at this depth. Plants are unknown; oxygen is scarce. There are eels with very large mouths and fish that glow.
Their world may seem strange, but it has a point of contact with our own. That hose filled with glass is ours; we put it there. It is a bundle of optical fibers that carry beams of light. The beams of light are bits of data, encoded as pulses. The bits of data are Facebook friend requests and financial trades, Twitch streams and supply chain analytics. Here, among the eels, lies a major artery of the algorithmic age.
There are many such arteries, but this one is known as MAREA. It is the highest-capacity submarine fiber-optic cable in the Atlantic, running across the ocean from a suburb of Bilbao, Spain, to Virginia Beach. Where it comes ashore, it looks like a snake rising out of the sea.
MAREA is a reminder that the internet has a body. A body of glass, copper, silicon and a thousand other things — things that have to be dug out of the earth and hammered into useful shapes, with significant inputs of labor and energy.
Bodies are material; they are also historical. Submarine cables like MAREA, writes the scholar Nicole Starosielski, frequently follow “the contours of earlier networks.” Installing underwater lines is expensive, and it’s safer to follow the paths of prior telephone and telegraph networks — themselves shaped by even older patterns of empire and capital. Cables typically shadow the sea routes pioneered in previous centuries, routes that circulated cotton, silver, spices, settlers and slaves.
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 antimonopoly 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: deprivatization.
To build a better internet, we need to change how it is owned and organized — not with an eye toward making markets work better, but toward making them matter less. Deprivatization 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 deprivatized 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 neighbors, 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 maximize user engagement for profit, which in turn makes it a haven for sensationalist propaganda that drives clicks. Deprivatized social media could optimize 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-organized 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 deprivatized internet. It’s closer than you think: some of the elements are already emerging in rudimentary form.
For example, programmers like Darius Kazemi — the author of a step-by-step guide to starting a small-scale social media site — are building new kinds of online spaces, with a more deliberate and more democratic approach to content moderation. Another example is Mastodon, an open-source software project that enables people to run their own social media servers and link them together into a federation. The Drivers Cooperative is a driver-owned ride-hailing cooperative that opened last year in New York City; it has more than 6,000 drivers and does hundreds of trips a day.
But the internet isn’t just apps and sites and platforms. It also consists of the physical infrastructure that makes it possible for you to get online in the first place: the pipes of the internet. Some, like MAREA, carry data across oceans; most carry data across shorter distances. Here too the consequences of corporate dictatorship have been disastrous.
Americans pay some of the most expensive rates in the world in exchange for awful service — the United States ranks 14th in average connection speeds, right below Hungary and Thailand.
The reason for the pitiful state of U.S. broadband is that the high fees extracted from users aren’t being reinvested to build better infrastructure, but to enrich executives and investors. Comcast’s chief executive earned $36.4 million in 2019, and the company — along with the other big firms — has spent billions of dollars on dividends and stock buybacks to line the pockets of its shareholders. Companies like Comcast are essentially slumlords. They charge exorbitant prices for access to their deteriorating infrastructure because people have no alternative.
Those who suffer most from a profit-driven system belong to communities that are too poor or too rural to merit the attention of the broadband monopolists. They are ignored because more money can be made elsewhere.
In 2018, Microsoft researchers found that 162.8 million Americans — almost half the country — do not use the internet at broadband speeds. If profit is the principle that determines how connectivity is distributed, millions will be forced to go without it.
Deprivatization can help here, too. Across the country, hundreds of publicly and cooperatively owned “community networks” are developing an alternative to the market-first model. Harvard researchers found that such networks “generally charge less for entry-level broadband service” than private providers. This is because they don’t exist to enrich investors; their rates reflect the prioritization of social needs, such as universal connectivity, over profits.
This makes them uniquely effective in places where profits are hard to maximize: places like rural North Dakota, which boasts some of the best access to high-speed broadband in the country, thanks to its cooperatives.
Rural cooperatives like those in North Dakota are granted a federal tax exemption as 501(c)(12) organizations, which are owned and governed by their members. To retain their exemption, they must operate at cost: They can cover the expenses incurred by providing service, but any excess revenue must be returned to the membership. They must also guarantee democratic control by holding regular elections for the board.
Ultimately, this is what distinguishes community networks from their corporate rivals: It’s not solely the fact of public or cooperative ownership, but the forms of democratic governance that these alternative ownership models make possible. To put people over profit, you need to create spaces where the people can rule.
These experiments are necessarily limited, however. If there’s any hope of their cohering into a radically new arrangement, they must be refined and expanded through public investment.
The scale and complexity of the internet mean there is no silver bullet for creating a democratic digital future. The precise contours of a democratic internet can be discovered only through a democratic process — through people coming together to build the world they want.
There is plenty of wisdom out there to draw from. There are many organizers and scholars who have thought deeply about digital injustice, and many communities that have acquired valuable expertise on the subject from their own encounters with it.
Even so, questions will remain: how to end algorithmic racism, for instance, or the right way to handle content moderation. Liberating the internet from the constraints of the profit motive won’t make these questions go away. It will, however, create the conditions in which the answers can be found. Perhaps then the submerged threads of glass that carry our data across oceans can make the world smaller without making it worse.
Ben Tarnoff is a writer and co-founder of Logic magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future,” from which this essay has been adapted.
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