Review of the book “Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future”, by Ben Tarnoff
Ben Tarnoff would surely say yes, and more. In his book “Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future”, Tarnoff, a technician and co-founder of Logic magazine, an advocate for a public internet. He argues that the internet’s myriad problems – rampant hate speech, virulent disinformation and, in the United States, some of the slowest and most expensive internet services in the developed world – exist because “the internet is a business”. Tarnoff states that “to build a better Internet, we must change the way it is owned and organized. Not with the goal of making markets work better, but to make them less dominant…an Internet where people, not the profit, reign.
“Internet for the People” contains ideas and language that will trigger anti-leftist reflexes in some readers, but those able to suppress their Cold War inclinations may not find a panacea to the problems of the Internet, but a useful reframe – from thinking about how to avoid a horrible internet to how to create a good one.
It’s hard to imagine, but the Internet wasn’t always a business; for the first 25 years of its history, it was entirely funded and operated by the federal government. The earliest ancestor of the Internet was ARPANET, built in 1969 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The network was originally intended to allow computers to communicate with poorly connected battle stations around the world, but it was quickly commandeered by DARPA scientists eager to share their research with each other. In 1986, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took over the initiative and replaced ARPANET with NSFNET, allowing more than 200 universities and government agencies to “interconnect”. Since its inception, the Internet has been a universal, non-proprietary language that any computer can use to talk to any other. “Under private ownership,” writes Tarnoff, “such a language could never have been created.”
But in 1994, NSFNET was collapsing under its own weight. Traffic increased over 1,000 times, and the invention of the first web browser was about to make matters worse. In the Clintonian fervor for privatization, the government decided to solve the problem by transferring control of the Internet to a handful of telecommunications companies. The state and federal governments had spent nearly $2 billion to build internet infrastructure, but “surprisingly, there were no strings attached to this transfer.” Tarnoff sees 1994 as the Waterloo of the Internet, a case where the government, because of its overzealous faith in the market, missed its chance to win concessions for privacy, guaranteed access, or democratic control over the Internet. .
Tarnoff thinks that for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the platforms built on them, the pursuit of profit and the public good are inherently opposed. Private ISPs are incentivized to sell access at minimum speeds for maximum price, to exploit their customers’ traffic to obtain sensitive data to sell to advertisers, and not to extend service to hard-to-reach rural areas. Tech companies also want to outsource as many costs as possible onto contract workers (think underpaid Uber drivers, overworked Amazon warehouse workers, traumatized Facebook content moderators) and the general public (think social media companies that maximize advertising revenue by collecting private data and recommending sensationalist content).
The usual ways lawmakers deal with these kinds of issues are through regulation and increased competition, but Tarnoff argues that neither would work for the tech sector. Regulation can often be circumvented and can further reduce competition by creating compliance costs that only larger companies can bear. Breaking up companies could, as Ezra Klein put it, “lead to even fiercer wars for our attention and data, prompting even more unethical ways to capture them.” Ultimately, Tarnoff says, both approaches fail because they assume and encourage “an Internet race for profit.”
Tarnoff thinks the best way to fix ISPs and tech companies is for them to be public or cooperative. This model is already working for ISPs – municipally-owned broadband networks tend to offer faster, cheaper and fairer internet access than their corporate alternatives because they don’t need to make a profit. The fibre-to-the-home network in the city of Chattanooga, for example, offers gigabit-per-second speeds (about 25 times faster than the national average) for the same national average cost, and half the price for low income people. families. The main obstacle to increasing municipal broadband is not lack of success, but telecommunications lobbyists, who have successfully banned or restricted it in 18 states.
The platforms don’t have a similar direct path to public or collective control, but “Internet for the People” offers a glimpse of what a more democratic internet could look like. Tarnoff wants platforms to be much smaller, small enough to govern themselves and resist radicalization of content. It’s inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s idea of a “plural” web – just as pool halls, libraries, and churches each have different standards, purposes, and designs, so does different places on the Internet. To achieve this, Tarnoff wants governments to pass laws that would make big platforms unprofitable and, in their place, fund small-scale local experiments in social media design. Instead of having platforms governed by engagement-maximizing algorithms, Tarnoff imagines public platforms run by local librarians that include public media content.
Tarnoff is vague about the details of his deprivatized Internet, and he is the first to admit that it is incomplete and politically impractical. He says little about how a public internet would deal with thorny issues like government surveillance or content moderation. He discusses America’s bigoted history of ‘local control’ – blocking school desegregation, redlining housing – but has few ideas on how to prevent a locally governed internet from meeting the same fate . The image of a stalwart bespectacled librarian running a small internet community instead of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg fully controlling an almost ubiquitous billion dollar global social network sounds like a cool breeze over a hot garbage pit . If this librarian had real political power, however, the outcome might not be so idyllic.
“Internet for the People” does not offer solutions to all Internet problems in its 180 pages, or even its 60 pages of citations, nor is it necessary. Instead, it presents a paradigm shift for reform, changing the question to “How can we have a healthy and private Internet?” to “What is the Internet we want, and where does the pro-market mentality stand in the way?” The Internet was born out of the government largesse of the 1960s but grew out of the “privatize everything” attitude of the 1990s. Unlike public health, public education, and public transportation, most Americans have never had the opportunity to experience a public Internet. Tarnoff wants to take the internet back to its public and civic roots, and whether or not that’s the right thing to do is the right question to ask.
Gabriel Nicholas is a researcher at the Center for Democracy & Technology and a co-fellow at the NYU Information Law Institute and the NYU Center for Cybersecurity.
The fight for our digital future