The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A plan to fix the internet: Put the government in charge

Ben Tarnoff proposes that the best way to fix the problems with internet service providers and tech companies, such as Twitter, is for them to be publicly or cooperatively owned. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)
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The day Elon Musk declared his intent to buy Twitter, many Americans learned for the first time that there is no law that prohibits one person — say, the world’s richest man — from single-handedly owning and controlling one of the largest public information-sharing systems in human history. But should there be?

Ben Tarnoff would surely say yes, and then some. In his book “Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future,” Tarnoff, a tech worker and a co-founder of Logic magazine, advocates for a publicly owned internet. He argues that the internet’s myriad problems — rampant hate speech, virulent misinformation and, in the United States, some of the slowest and most expensive internet service in the developed world — exist because “the internet is a business.” Tarnoff says that “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 less dominant … an internet where people, and not profit, rule.”

“Internet for the People” has ideas and language that will trip some readers’ anti-leftist reflexes, but those able to quell their Cold War proclivities will find perhaps not a panacea for the internet’s problems but a helpful reframing — from thinking about how to avoid a horrible internet to how to create a good one.

It’s hard to imagine, but the internet was not always a business; for the first 25 years of its history, it was entirely funded and operated by the federal government. The earliest progenitor of the internet was ARPANET, built in 1969 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The network was originally meant to let computers communicate with poorly connected battle stations across the globe, but it was quickly commandeered by DARPA scientists eager to share research with one another. In 1986, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took over the endeavor and replaced ARPANET with NSFNET, which enabled more than 200 universities and government agencies to “internetwork” with one another. Since its inception, the internet has been a nonproprietary, universal language that any computer can use to speak to any other. “Under private ownership,” Tarnoff writes, “such a language could never have been created.”

But by 1994, NSFNET was collapsing under its own weight. Traffic was up more than 1,000-fold, and the invention of the first web browser was about to make things worse. In the Clintonian fervor for privatization, the government decided to address the problem by transferring control of the internet to a handful of telecom companies. State and federal governments had spent close to $2 billion to build the infrastructure of the internet, yet “strikingly, this transfer came with no conditions.” Tarnoff sees 1994 as the internet’s Waterloo, a case where the government, because of its overzealous faith in the market, blew its chance to extract concessions for privacy, guaranteed access or democratic control over the internet.

Tarnoff believes that for internet service providers (ISPs) and the platforms built on top of them, the profit motive and the public good are inherently at odds. Private ISPs are incentivized to sell access at minimum speeds for maximum price, mine their customers’ traffic for sensitive data to sell to advertisers, and not extend service to hard-to-reach rural areas. Tech companies, too, are interested in externalizing as many costs as possible onto contract workers (think underpaid Uber drivers, overworked Amazon warehouse employees, traumatized Facebook content moderators) and the public at large (think social media companies maximizing ad revenue by collecting private data and recommending sensationalist content).

The usual ways lawmakers deal with these kinds of problems are regulation and increased competition, but Tarnoff argues that neither would work for the tech sector. Regulation can often be circumvented and may further decrease competition by creating compliance costs that only the largest companies can bear. Breaking up companies could, as Ezra Klein put it, “lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.” Ultimately, Tarnoff says, both approaches fail because they assume and encourage “an internet run for profit.”

Tarnoff believes that the best way to fix ISPs and tech companies is for them to be publicly or cooperatively owned. This model already works for ISPs — municipally owned broadband networks tend to offer faster, cheaper and more equitable internet access than their corporate alternatives because they don’t need to earn a profit. Chattanooga’s city-owned fiber-to-the-home network, for example, offers on- gigabit-per-second speeds (about 25 times faster than the national average) for the same average national cost, and half-price for low-income families. The main barrier to more municipal broadband is not a lack of success stories but telecom lobbyists, who have succeeded in banning or restricting it in 18 states.

Platforms have no similar straightforward path to public or collective control, but “Internet for the People” offers a sketch of what a more democratic internet could look like. Tarnoff wants platforms to be much smaller, small enough to govern themselves and resist radicalizing content. He pulls from Ethan Zuckerman’s idea of a web that is “plural in purpose” — that just as pool halls, libraries and churches each have different norms, purposes and designs, so too should different places on the internet. To achieve this, Tarnoff wants governments to pass laws that would make the big platforms unprofitable and, in their place, fund small-scale, local experiments in social media design. Instead of having platforms ruled by engagement-maximizing algorithms, Tarnoff imagines public platforms run by local librarians that include content from public media.

Tarnoff is hazy on the details of his deprivatized internet, and he is the first to admit that it is incomplete and politically impracticable. He talks little about how a public internet would deal with thorny problems such as government surveillance or content moderation. He discusses America’s bigoted history of “local control” — blocking school desegregation, redlining housing — but has few ideas for how to prevent a locally governed internet from meeting the same fate. The image of a trusty, bespectacled librarian managing a small internet community instead of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg fully controlling a global, near-ubiquitous billion-dollar social network feels like a cool breeze over a hot garbage pit. If that librarian had real political power, though, the outcome might not be so idyllic.

“Internet for the People” doesn’t offer solutions for all the internet’s problems in its 180 pages, or even in its 60 pages of citations, nor does it need to. Instead, it presents a paradigm shift for reform, changing the question from “How can we have a healthy, privately owned internet?” to “What is the internet we want, and where does pro-market mentality get in the way?” The internet was born from the government largesse of the 1960s but raised in the “privatize everything” attitude of the 1990s. Unlike with public health, public education and public transportation, most Americans never got to experience a public internet. Tarnoff wants to bring the internet back to its publicly owned, civically oriented roots, and whether or not that’s the right thing to do, it’s the right question to ask.

Gabriel Nicholas is a researcher at the Center for Democracy & Technology and a joint fellow at the NYU Information Law Institute and the NYU Center for Cybersecurity.

Internet for the People

The Fight for Our Digital Future

By Ben Tarnoff

Verso. 272 pp. $24.95

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