Why we need a public internet and how to get one

Why we need a public internet and how to get one
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For weeks, tech news has been dominated by billionaire Elon Musk’s attempts to buy (and subsequently avoid buying) Twitter. And since Musk announced his plans in April, people have debated whether it’s better for online social spaces like Twitter to remain publicly traded companies — where they’re under pressure from shareholders — or be owned by a single wealthy figure like Musk.

But Ben Tarnoff, author of the upcoming book Internet for the People, believes there’s a better way. Tarnoff’s book outlines the history of the internet, starting with its early days as a government-run network, which was parceled out to private companies with little regard for users. It discusses common proposals like lessening the power of internet gatekeepers with antitrust reform, but it also argues that promoting competition isn’t enough: there should also be a political movement advocating for local, noncommercial spaces online. I spoke with Tarnoff about what that means — and why it’s not as simple as breaking up (or cloning) Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

We’re in this ongoing saga of Elon Musk buying Twitter and turning it from a public company to a private company run by a billionaire — which feels like our two basic models for the way that information services can operate right now. Do you feel like that’s made people think more about the issues that your book raises?

I certainly hope so. I think it is a powerful illustration of the vulnerability of the spaces where our conversations — particularly political conversations — take place to private capture and control.

Twitter, as you point out, is already a privately owned company, although one that is traded on public markets. The prospect of Musk taking it private raises the possibility of a single man having near-total control over one of the most important social networks in the world. I know it’s fashionable to say sometimes that Twitter is not real life, and of course that’s true — but it can be quite influential in matters of policy and matters of culture. I think the short answer is I hope that it stimulates a broader conversation about what is at stake when it comes to the private ownership of the spaces where our conversations take place. But I’m not sure I’ve seen it quite yet.

It was interesting that I saw Mastodon get an uptick in signups, but I’m unclear on how much that’s been sustained.

I think Mastodon often enjoys a little surge of popularity when certain things happen, and I think that’s cool. There are all sorts of difficulties in running and maintaining an open-source project, but hopefully it pushes people to seek out alternatives and at minimum, even if they don’t migrate permanently to Mastodon, simply to have their imagination enlarged is constructive. To know that there are different models out there — that there are communities that are experimenting with different ways of being online together — is a positive step. It’s not sufficient, but I think it’s a necessary condition.

Your book mentions lots of things that have been around for a while — communities like Mastodon, municipal broadband efforts — but they’ve never broken through to the mainstream. I’m curious if you think that’s because of a lack of resources or if there are technical barriers or if they’re never going to be massively mainstream.

I think the core problem is that these alternatives tend to attract a fairly niche, typically more technical audience. And it’s difficult for those types of alternatives to really become mainstream without significant public investment — and without a broader political movement that makes clear what the stakes actually are.

So I see those spaces and those alternatives as really cool and inspiring and creative technical experiments. But technical experimentation, as we’ve learned, isn’t enough to generate a radically different arrangement. It’s important — but we need politics. We need public policy. We need social movements. We need all these other ingredients that we can’t get from a code base.

You talk about how the bigness of sites like Facebook is a problem — so we can’t just make a publicly funded version of Facebook and expect it to work well. But it’s also difficult to get people to go somewhere else when there’s not one obvious option you can direct them to. How do you thread that needle?

To my mind, the point is not simply to trade Facebook for a decentralized Facebook and to trade Twitter for a cooperatively owned Twitter. I think those are constructive first steps towards imagining a better internet, but we have to understand that the architectures of modern platforms were developed with certain incentives in mind and were developed to optimize certain behaviors in the service of profit maximization. We can’t simply organize them a bit differently and expect substantially different results.

We need to create brick-and-mortar spaces where ordinary folks without technical backgrounds can come in and get connected with technical expertise and resources to actually build the types of online spaces and tools that would meet their everyday needs. And that, I know, sounds a bit utopian. But there is an interesting precedent — from London in the 1980s, where the Labour Party-led local government opened a lot of what we would today think of as makerspaces or hackerspaces and had this aspiration to democratize the design and development of technology.

So I think that’s where I place much of my hope: that further horizon of, if you could really stimulate people’s creativity at scale, what new online worlds could we create?

It seems like the core issue isn’t necessarily that people can’t develop these things; it’s that they don’t want to spend a bunch of time trying to find new online spaces — like a substitute for a thing that, say, lets them invite people to their birthday party. They just want to use Facebook for that because it’s easy.

I think in terms of: how do we make the technologies usable enough to attract a mass audience while also clarifying to that audience the stakes of using Facebook? And that’s where I think politics has a role to play. It’s not simply about giving alternatives a better user interface — which is important, and I think probably only possible through public investment. It’s also to clarify to that less technical user of Facebook: Here are the consequences of your use of the platform. Here’s what the platform contributes to the world. Here is what the platform is recording about your everyday life.

People’s awareness of that has grown significantly over the past few years, to the point that a number of folks are leaving Facebook because of it. But I think you need the politics piece as well as the technical piece in that conversation.

You mention an idea from Darius Kazemi that libraries could run local social networks.

Darius has this idea of: what if every library in the United States had a social media server in its basement, and they were all federated together using a project like Mastodon? I like this model for a lot of reasons. Probably above all, it’s the possibility of creating a face-to-face deliberative space in which very difficult issues around content moderation can be resolved through a local democratic process.

Moderation goes pretty deep into the values that people hold about how we should treat one another. To my mind, those are conflicts about values that can only be fleshed out in spaces of democratic deliberation, and those spaces work better when they’re smaller.

I try to caution in the book against making a fetish of the community because, particularly in the United States, there’s a long racist history to local control in particular. And in the case of the internet, we can’t afford to simply be local because the internet is not local. But it’s not local to the exclusion of the regional or the national — it’s local as a promising site of governance because of the richness of the interpersonal interaction that it promotes.

Do you think there are ways to organize small communities that have some level of self-governance that aren’t geographical?

Yeah — I think a possible objection would be: isn’t the whole point of the internet and computer networking more broadly the ability to form affiliations that aren’t place-based? What I liked about the internet when I discovered it as a kid in the ’90s was precisely that it wasn’t based in my local community, and I could talk to people from all over. But the appeal of having local structures is that I want to be able to put two or three dozen people in a room and have them debate, discuss, and argue about what to do about a certain thing. That type of democratic decision-making works best in a smaller, in-person context.

That makes sense — but you’re right: an exciting thing about the internet was that you didn’t have to be bound to a place you were born in or moved to and didn’t necessarily want to be.

I think we’re in a situation now in which people have a lot of [online] associations, but not many [physical] associations. And it feels a bit lopsided. It’s very easy to live in an American city, not know your neighbors, not really know anybody in your other community, not really have relationships with your coworkers, but live much of your social life through the internet with people you’ve never met.

I wouldn’t moralize and say that’s bad — I think people create arrangements that work for them. But I think there is probably something to be said for creating a more balanced arrangement where in-person, place-based, workplace-based affiliations could be restored.

You point to moments in the history of internet privatization where there were intervention points, like proposals for a “public lane in the information superhighway.” How much do you think that any of those paths would have changed the course of the internet if they’d been taken?

I’m not sure that they would have prevented the worst abuses of the modern internet, but I think all of them would have changed the future of the internet.

Privatization was the plan all along — the federal government did not want to run the internet indefinitely. They knew that the internet would pass into private hands. But there were, as you indicate, a number of proposals for the government to carve out public footholds of different kinds in this new private network. And those proposals were defeated by the private sector. They established a total corporate dictatorship over the physical infrastructure of the internet.

So those points in history that could have gone a different way, they would not have contested privatization. But they would have produced less extreme forms of privatization, which I think would have been a constructive thing and would have given us much more space in the contemporary internet to imagine an alternative.

To bring things back to the beginning: we talked about the scenario of Elon Musk controlling Twitter. What is the ideal alternative for you? There’s the version where Elon Musk doesn’t control Twitter, for example, because the government controls Twitter. Or a world where there’s no such thing as Twitter because there’s no one platform that big or powerful. What’s the setup you think would be the most pro-social?

What I would like to see, above all, is an internet that is populated by spaces that are truly designed, developed, implemented, and governed by their users. That’s my North Star.

I think that implies a much more polycentric internet, a much more heterogeneous internet, an internet that mimics the complexity and diversity of our online life, although that has diminished with gentrification. And some of the things we’ve been discussing today are steps in that direction, small steps or large steps. But that’s an internet that I think would be for the people — because an internet for the people would be one in which people have the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most affect them when it comes to their online life.

Internet for the People will go on sale on June 14th from publisher Verso.


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