Ben Tarnoff discusses his new book, which calls for a radical restructuring of the internet to address its harm to society.

Ben Tarnoff discusses his new book, which calls for a radical restructuring of the internet to address its harm to society.

Across the globe, there’s a war being waged on tech giants’ monopolies. Lawmakers – armed with the EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act and in the US, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act – are hoping to rein in some of the internet’s negative social impacts. These include disinformation, the erosion of privacy, racist algorithms, sexist trolling, the alt-right, and unequal access to broadband – to name a few.

In Internet For The People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso Books), author Ben Tarnoff argues that reformist regulation does not go far enough. His book documents the history of the internet – which began life as state-funded research, and succumbed to commercial forces as neoliberalism accelerated through the ’90s – to show that there are other ways it could be run. Its current profit-driven iteration fuels inequality, according to Tarnoff, and requires radical restructuring. The solution is clear: we need to deprivatise the internet. 

Huck spoke to Tarnoff about public-owned broadband, why worker-owned gig work apps don’t go far enough, and how a non-profit internet could support the fight for a fairer society. 

In the book, you speak about grieving possible directions that the internet might have taken if the US government had continued to fund it. What other routes do you think the internet could have gone down?

I am hesitant to embrace internet nostalgia. It’s tempting for all of us to mourn the passage of the internet that we grew up on. What I tried to argue in the book is that internet nostalgia is inevitable, but we may be able to harvest its energy for a higher political potential. What if we mourned the possible futures the internet could have had if certain opportunities in its history had not been missed? 

One emerges around the period of privatisation in the mid ‘90s. In the United States the decision was made to rapidly transition the physical infrastructure of the internet – which until then had been a federally managed system – to the private sector. 

At the time, there were a number of proposals in Congress that would have preserved a public foothold in the internet. There was a Senate bill introduced by Senator Daniel Inouye that would have had the telecoms reserve up to 20 per cent of their capacity for certain non-profit organisations like libraries, taking inspiration from the history of public media. 

There were a number of instances in the history of the internet where it could have gone a different way. The reason that privatisation took an extreme form, and we now have such a total corporate dictatorship over the infrastructures of the internet, was the absence of a powerful enough social movement that could have stood up to the corporations and demanded an alternative.

Internet for the People by Ben Tarnoff cover art courtesy Verso Books

Labour’s 2019 manifesto proposed a free broadband in the UK, and internet access is increasingly being viewed as a utility since the rise of remote working. Do you think that a social movement for a deprivatised internet is gaining momentum?

I think there’s certainly a greater recognition of the essential nature of internet access in the era of the pandemic. We saw it in the United States quite starkly when people were working from home. A large number of Americans do not have access to the internet at broadband speed, so they were forced to camp out in the parking lots of churches, community centres and libraries to get a decent internet connection. The scale of the social crisis became visible in a new way. 

What are some examples of campaigns that already exist for deprivatised broadband or platforms? 

Probably the most famous municipally-owned broadband network in the United States is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s called the “Gig”, and was unveiled in 2010. It offered the highest residential speeds of anywhere in the country, and has continued to be a very successful, well-liked network that is run by a local municipal agency, which is itself a legacy of a New Deal-era rural electrification. 

Rural North Dakota has some of the best internet access in the country because a handful of rural electric cooperatives got together and started offering fibre optic internet to their communities. Those are a very practical blueprint for developing a better model for the physical infrastructure of the internet. 

But the internet is not simply composed of the physical infrastructure – the so-called “pipes”. It also consists of the so-called “platforms” and all these computational systems that organise different aspects of our economic, civic and social lives. There, too, the opportunities for organising are vast. Look at the organising among app-based workers in the UK, among folks like Deliveroo workers. That’s organising around the internet, as far as I’m concerned. 

You talk about the Equitable Internet Initiative in Detroit, where campaigners are working to improve internet access for Black communities. What do you think we can learn from anti-racist activists as we build a different vision of the internet?

Anti-racist activists and the Black liberation struggle more broadly have given us a keen understanding of how oppression is perpetuated by computational systems. Their attention is often focused on technologies like algorithmic policing and algorithmic sentencing and how these ostensibly neutral technological tools perpetuate racist practices. That’s an invaluable set of insights. 

The Equitable Internet Initiative in particular is interesting, because they’re trying to develop a way of seeing broadband connectivity that is not simply about getting connected in the narrow technical sense, but in increasing the social, the human, the interpersonal connectivity of certain neighbourhoods. 

When they send folks into people’s homes in Detroit to get them connected to the internet, these people are not just technicians. They’re actually trained organisers. They have an analysis of racial capitalism, the forces that have conspired to oppress working-class people in Detroit, and they’re bringing that into people’s homes. 

That’s a powerful illustration of the potential there is in embedding these projects within a broader political context. It’s not just coming into your house to get you connected to a low cost or free internet. It’s bringing you into a whole set of relationships that are designed to sustain an ongoing organising project in Detroit. I think that’s a pretty inspiring example of how to do that.

You argue that Angela Davies is the ideal thinker for reimagining the internet. How did you arrive at her writing as a model?

I love Angela Davis. She’s one of the most important thinkers that the left has produced. What I was drawn to specifically is her idea of abolition as a positive project. Abolition is not simply about eliminating prisons. It is about building an array of institutions that can occupy the space that those abolished institutions formerly occupied. Crucially, she points out that we can’t expect a one-to-one replacement. The point is not to replace prisons with pseudo prisons, or to replace police with pseudo police, but to develop a web of entities that obviate the need for police and prisons. 

To my mind, that was a very useful way to think about transforming the internet. We can’t simply nationalise or cooperativise or socialise those platforms and expect substantially different results. We have to do the imaginative work of abolition, and develop a picture of the internet in our minds that would obviate the need for those types of computational systems. 

In certain creative and political spaces, the aspiration sometimes is to build a worker-owned Uber or a cooperatively-owned Facebook. I think those are worthwhile short-term steps, but ultimately not quite enough. We’re operating on enemy territory. Social media platforms, in particular gig work platforms, have evolved certain architectures over the years, and those architectures embed certain imperatives. One can’t just pick up the architecture and own it differently. One has to actually make new architectures.

In the book, you use the metaphor of online shopping malls to describe how digital platforms currently shape the internet. Are there any other physical public spaces that you would want digital platforms to resemble in the future?

The obvious one is public parks. That’s a comparison that’s been made by a number of people, but it’s not mixed-use enough for me. If I were to be pedantic about our metaphors, I would point out that public parks are for recreation, and the deprivatised internet is not purely recreational. There are all sorts of things that people will need to continue to do on the internet. 

We have an idea in the United States of something called a national forest, which can be used for recreation but is also open to a variety of economic activities. I like the idea of something that feels more heterogenous and maybe more wild – to briefly tinker with the imagery of the online mall being overtaken by the natural world, having the windows shatter and the weeds grow in. It’s maybe somewhat overheated apocalyptic imagery, but there’s something about the rewilded mall that’s also appealing.

Pre-order Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future here.

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