inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #0 of 62: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Sun 31 Jul 22 07:13
Inkwell welcomes Ben Tarnoff, who joins us for a two-week
asynchronous discussion of his book, "Internet for the People."

From the publisher's site: "In Internet for the People, leading tech
writer Ben Tarnoff offers an answer. The internet is broken, he
argues, because it is owned by private firms and run for profit.
Google annihilates your privacy and Facebook amplifies right-wing
propaganda because it is profitable to do so. But the internet
wasn't always like this -- it had to be remade for the purposes of
profit maximization, through a years-long process of privatization
that turned a small research network into a powerhouse of global
capitalism. Tarnoff tells the story of the privatization that made
the modern internet, and which set in motion the crises that consume
it today.

"The solution to those crises is straightforward: deprivatize the
internet. Deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people,
and not profit, rule. It calls for shrinking the space of the market
and diminishing the power of the profit motive. It calls for
abolishing the walled gardens of Google, Facebook, and the other
giants that dominate our digital lives and developing publicly and
cooperatively owned alternatives that encode real democratic
control. To build a better internet, we need to change how it is
owned and organized. Not with an eye towards making markets work
better, but towards making them less dominant. Not in order to
create a more competitive or more rule-bound version of
privatization, but to overturn it. Otherwise, a small number of
executives and investors will continue to make choices on everyone's
behalf, and these choices will remain tightly bound by the demands
of the market. It's time to demand an internet by, and for, the
people now."

Ben Tarnoff is a tech worker, a writer, and an editor. He's also a
founding editor of Logic Magazine. His writing has appeared  in The
New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, Jacobin, and some
other  places.

Leading the conversation is Ari Davidow. Ari has been fascinated by
the intersection of the internet and activism ever since he posted
notes from a Witness for Peace visit to Nicaragua and realized that
he was getting more feedback from the local BBS than from people in
the organization that sent his group. He is a long-time WELL member,
still trying to be an activist, and currently teaches Cloud
Computing at Brandeis University.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #1 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Mon 1 Aug 22 18:27
Ben, the idea of "Internet for the People" as a concept is magical.
It is fair to say that back even a few decades when Howard Rheingold
was writing "Virtual Community" many of us felt that the internet
was creating affordances that we wanted to believe would increase
understanding and enhance the power of us, the good guys, the
PEOPLE, to collaborate with each others. You focus on two major
areas in which, instead, we have unleashed new ways for the powerful
to extract time and money from those less powerful: the utilities
that own and maintain what was one a government-funded set of pipes
that connected everyone "for free", and the walled gardens and
interconnections that are now owned by major datamining
corporations, turning our lives into marketable data and making even
more money by making not just our own pockets lighter, but our
societies more polarized and fearful.

Before we get in too deep though, let me start with the basics. What
drew you to this story? How did you come to write the book, and what
are you hoping to accomplish?
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #2 of 62: Ben Tarnoff (btarnoff) Tue 2 Aug 22 05:40
Thanks for having me, Ari. It's great to be here.

I've always loved, and been fascinated by, the internet. But I began
thinking and writing about it more systematically in 2016. At the
time, the "techlash" was beginning to take form, though the word
didn't exist yet. The mainstream conversation about technology was
becoming more critical. And I guess I was interested in trying to
get to the root of the problem. Where had things gone wrong? 

There are many ways to answer this question, of course. But I chose
to focus on the internet, because it's the core system of the social
and technical assemblage we call "tech." By focusing on the
internet, I could tell a more bounded, and more grounded, story. And
I very much wanted to tell a single story -- a story that felt
relatively coherent, with a beginning, middle, and end. As it turns
out, though, I'm not sure that the internet is the main character in
my story. Rather, it's privatization as the process that made the
modern internet that occupies the role of protagonist -- or
antihero, perhaps.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #3 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 2 Aug 22 06:21
Privitization is a theme of this book, and indeed, of many things
not working in our world today could be described as "x as a
business" vs "how do we provide services that meet people's needs" -
the latter being one of the legs of capitalism, but one that is
usually subsumed by "how do we extract maximum value for ourselves."

But, as you write, that is a distraction. Your book is a wonderful
dive into one particular set of industries, "tech" or "web" or
whatever, and gives us this wonderful object lesson.

I want to start with something you address early in the book, the
actual infrastructure, and which then gets set aside as you look at
what the big tech companies do with our data and how that damages us
as a society.

You start off in the forward putting the emphasis on
"deprivatization." That starts with "deprivatizing the pipes" - ways
in which local communities can take over and provide services that
don't even seem to matter to the corporations that prefer to skim
the cream off the top.

I guess, though, we should start at the beginning. You write that
the government always intended to spin off this business of the
"pipes", and that the explosion in use and popularity pushed it to
do so faster. What isn't clear to me, though, is how we wound up
with a model that resembles cable television (and often involves the
same corporations) where instead of public utilities (which have
their own issues these days) which are nominally acting in the
public good, and instead have backbone and final mile services that
are entirely profit driven. 

How did we get here?
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
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inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #5 of 62: Ben Tarnoff (btarnoff) Tue 2 Aug 22 08:29
The internet originates at DARPA — the Pentagon’s R&D arm — in the
1970s. Initially, it is a protocol — a set of rules for how
different computer networks could communicate with one another and
thus form an inter-network (the origin of the word “internet”). By
the 1980s, the Pentagon is using this protocol to interconnect its
networks, and the internet — as a place, a distinct cluster of
networks — is born.

Over the course of the 1980s, the internet grows considerably, and
passes into civilian hands. The National Science Foundation (NSF) —
the federal agency tasked with supporting basic research — creates a
new “backbone” for the internet and spends heavily on getting
computer centers across the country — primarily at universities and
other research sites — connected. 

Now, the NSF never planned to run the internet forever. At some
point, the expectation was that the system would eventually be run
by the private sector. But privatization happened sooner than
expected, as growing demand for internet access threatened to
overwhelm the NSF. And that privatization would take an especially
extreme form, thanks to extensive industry input into the process.

The transition point is 1995. This is when the NSF terminates its
backbone and the private sector takes over the “pipes” of the
internet. Crucially, this transition is not accompanied by any
conditions or compensation. There would be no public foothold in the
new internet, much less a public utility model of service provision.
Rather, the telecoms managed to achieve a near-total corporate
dictatorship over the pipes — a dictatorship that would be further
consolidated over the course of the 1990s and into the early 2000s,
as a number of deregulatory moves, most of which occurred under the
George W. Bush-era FCC, deepened monopoly power. 

The result? Today, only four companies account for 76 percent of all
internet subscriptions in the US. Americans pay higher average
monthly internet costs than those in Europe or Asia, while the US
ranks fourteenth in average connection speeds, below Hungary and
Thailand. And, according to a report by Microsoft in 2018, 162.8
million Americans do not use the internet at broadband speeds —
almost half the country. This is nothing less than a major social
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #6 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 2 Aug 22 09:09
What can people do? On the one hand, as you write in the book, there
are a few municipal cooperatives set up to provide high speed
internet to small towns away from the big cities. But, for the most
part, contracts are written so that civic ownership is forbidden.
The same pattern holds not just for internet access, but for
streaming services in general (and to the best of my knowledge, for
power generation, as well).

First, how is access to the Internet different from these other
critical utilities (cable, which is often synchronouos these days
with internet access; or power), and second, who is having success
fighting this problem?

As you write, the US has some of the most expensive, least advanced
access to the internet in the world - it's a lot like American
healthcare. I am aware, however, that congressman Ro Khanna has
pushed changes to that in the former BBB and other bills - any
success? Any potential for change in the nearish term?
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #7 of 62: Craig Maudlin (clm) Tue 2 Aug 22 09:51
Hi Ben, I'm enjoying your work. Lots of challenging ideas. I appreciate
your efforts at elaborating the complex nature of the Internet landscape
-- the metaphorical 'platforms,' corporate sovereignty (both real and
imagined!). This is a deep and complex subject; not easy for me at all.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #8 of 62: Frako Loden (frako) Tue 2 Aug 22 12:53
Definitely hard for me, but I'm going to try to understand it. Welcome, Ben.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #9 of 62: keep buggering on (clmyers) Tue 2 Aug 22 13:43
Yes, welcome here! This is fascinating.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #10 of 62: Ben Tarnoff (btarnoff) Tue 2 Aug 22 14:01
Ari: The internet exists at several different scales simultaneously:
the local, the regional, the national, the global. This often makes
the prospect of transforming the internet seem intimidating: how
could we possibly transform something so big and complex? 

But this multiplicity of scales is also an opportunity. It means the
attack surface is quite large: there are many possible entry points
for productive interventions. In particular, there is a lot of
important work to do at the local level.

I’ll give you an example. There are more than 900 “community
networks” across the United States. These are broadband networks
that are publicly owned, typically by a municipality, or
cooperatively owned by the users themselves. These community
networks provide better service at lower cost than corporate
counterparts like Comcast and, crucially, can enable users to
exercise a degree of democratic control over their operation. Now,
as you point out, telecoms have lobbied state legislators to pass
laws that restrict or outright ban municipally owned broadband
networks in eighteen states. But organizers in a number of states
have managed to get those laws removed, and I’m sure they’ll
continue to have success elsewhere.

So one of the answers to the question of what people can do is to
organize with others in your area to demand a community network.
Make the case to your neighbors. Or, if you live in one of those
states with restrictions on municipal broadband, organize to get
those restrictions overturned.

There are plenty of other ways to contribute as well, of course. If
you have technical skills, there are any number of interesting
experiments in the decentralized web and platform cooperativism
worlds that could use you. There’s always a way to do the work, but
what the work is will depend on where you are and who you are.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #11 of 62: Benjamin Tarnoff (btarnoff) Tue 2 Aug 22 14:02
Thanks Craig, Frako, and Clmyers. Good to be here.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #12 of 62: Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Tue 2 Aug 22 20:09
Ben, I enjoyed your book about this very important issue. I see that
you mentioned Victor Pickard in the acknowledgments. Maybe I missed
the discussion of the Internet's influence on political journalism,
which Victor has written about, but can you talk more about how the
Internet's privatization affected political journalism and how this
might figure in the correction you propose? The approach you suggest
seems to lead naturally to supporting what are often called public
goods. Old-fashioned infrastructure is a parade example, but many
observers have made the case that political journalism, too, is a
public good and should be financed that way.  
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #13 of 62: Ben Tarnoff (btarnoff) Wed 3 Aug 22 05:30
Thanks Peter.

What I find so valuable about Victor’s work is his argument that we
need to place the internet’s effects on our informational
environment within a longer history. 

The US has a deeply commercialized media sphere, with very little
space for public or noncommercial media — unusually so, by the
standards of other advanced economies. And the effect, Victor
argues, is a media sphere that favors sensationalism over accuracy,
that seeks to entertain rather than inform.

There are countless examples of hyper-commercialism contributing to
a degraded informational environment long before the modern internet
came to be. Right-wing propagandists have often been the
beneficiaries: think of Rush Limbaugh and the explosion of
right-wing talk radio after the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine
in 1987, or the more recent rise of Fox News.

Now, the internet is obviously very different as a medium than
either radio or television. But one can observe the same basic
pattern. Take Facebook. Facebook is engineered from the ground up to
maximize user engagement. The company wants to manufacture as much
data as possible, and data of particular kinds, in order to sell
so-called targeted advertising. The result is an informational
environment that, typically through algorithmic means, promotes
sensationalistic content of the kind that drives engagement. And
this in turn has created opportunities for the Right, as Facebook
has given them an invaluable megaphone for their ideas.

What is to be done? Victor lays out a comprehensive plan for the
reinvigoration of public media in the US, which involves a federal
trust fund to support public media ventures across the country,
along with a number of other interventions. I think he’s right. We
can’t get a higher-quality informational environment — whether on
the internet or anywhere else — without real public investment in
noncommercial media. We need public policy that recognizes that
access to reliable information is a prerequisite of democratic
politics, and such information can only be provisioned as a public
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #14 of 62: Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Wed 3 Aug 22 06:40
Thanks, Ben. Yes, the U.S. is relatively stingy on the public media
front. We're a little more generous with our tax dollars when it
comes to producing news for foreign consumption (Voice of America,
Radio Free Europe, etc.).

I credit Craig Newmark and others who have emphasized the importance
of funding journalism. It's no coincidence that Craigslist is often
cited as a factor in the decline of for-profit news organizations.
But I'm not sure the philanthropical model will work at scale.  

A media ecology that includes for-profit activity and a well-funded
public option seems to be the most sensible approach. As you say,
most advanced economies have been doing that for some time. Even
better, I think, if Internet monopolies do their share to fund that
public option, but I'm sure Victor and others have thought this
through more carefully. The main point is to see how the decision to
privatize, which was barely discussed, led to these outcomes that
we're still struggling with. 
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #15 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 3 Aug 22 10:27
Ben, one of the things you stress in the introduction to "Internet
for the People" is how there is a whole _stack_ of relevant
technologies. The problem doesn't just lie with de-privatising the
roads (in this case, the pipes over which the information moves) but
all the way up the stack - each layer dependent on the previous one
- to the point where tech companies turn our personal data into a
destructive byproduct from which they mine further profits.

You write: "... the Internet is broken because the Internet is a
business.... An internet [say] owned by smaller, more
entrepreneurial, more regulated firms will still be an internet run
for project. And an internet run for profit is one that can't
guarantee people the things they need to lead self-determined
lives.... It's an internet in which the rewards flow to the few and
the risks are borne by the many. In other words, it's the internet
as we know it today."

The Internet was created as a public good and then handed over to
private enterprise - basically, for free. There seems to be
something twisted in the belief that infrastructure created for
public good must be handed over to private enterprise who are then
free to extract maximum profit - but not required to even provide
adequate service to those from whom the maximum profit levels can't
be extracted.

Thus, rural areas have limited to no access to broadband; even as
the private providers attempt to step aside from net neutrality and
create new "services" for which they can charge premium fees where
there is a market to pay them.

It's what we seem to have done, and it makes no sense, overall. It
also delivers, as noted earlier, poor results. (This is before we
even consider the poison injected by the tech companies at the top
of the stack).

Am I correctly representing this bottom layer of the stack (I'm
hoping to go further up the stack as we move through the next couple
of weeks.)? 

If I am understanding your manifesto, perhaps the point is to become
aware of the absurdity and danger of this situation, so that we can
figure out models for de-privatization?
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #16 of 62: Craig Maudlin (clm) Wed 3 Aug 22 12:38
Ari touches on why this is such a tough subject for me. If the overall
goal is to work for meaningful change, how important is it that everyone
agree with statements like "The Internet is broken because the Internet
is a  business?"

That's a rallying cry that may be highly motivating for some, but may
also be demotivating for others, who might otherwise be supportive.

My impulse here is entirely pragmatic: why engage in unnecessary
arguments when we may already have a substantial consensus about the
need for serious change?

I'm encouraged by Ben's comments about the various scales at which
this complex thing ("The Internet") can be viewed. Is that enough
to build upon?

Here's another key point from Ben's book:

> These interactions illustrate an important point. An online mall
> is an assemblage of technical components, but the components are
> entangled with a wider set of political, legal, and financial
> forces. These entanglements are functional--they are what makes
> the online mall work. They are not a context so much as a medium,
> not a backdrop against which the online mall operates but the
> channels that it operates through.   - p129

Not only is today's assemblage of technical components embedded in
the wider world, but so too are any efforts to make changes (or even
those aimed at *preventing* change!).
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #17 of 62: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Wed 3 Aug 22 13:16
I am loving this book so much, and look forward to the discussion
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #18 of 62: Inkwell Co-host (jonl) Wed 3 Aug 22 17:10
I'm wondering whether there will ever be effective action to take on
tech monopolies. Some (such as Cory Doctorow) argue that's an
essential step. 
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #19 of 62: Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Wed 3 Aug 22 17:19
I was surprised and alarmed when Google was allowed to acquire
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #20 of 62: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Wed 3 Aug 22 19:12
It's part of the larger issue of monopolies in the world economy,
and in the US. It will take massive political will to change it all,
even slightly.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #21 of 62: Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Thu 4 Aug 22 05:28
Craig, your point in 16 is well taken. There are other ways to get
at the same idea. Economists refer to education, infrastructure, law
enforcement, etc. as public goods. That phrase has a technical
definition, but it basically means that the market by itself will
fail to produce the optimal mix and amount of that good. 

Imagine, for example, for-profit fire department. To maximize
profit, they will charge whatever the market will bear to save your
house while it's burning down. Someone might say, "The fire
department is broken because the fire department is a business."
Yes, there are other ways to phrase it--less inflammatory,
perhaps?--but that's the root idea.

It might be less controversial to say that the Internet is another
public good and should be operated and regulated accordingly. 
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #22 of 62: Ben Tarnoff (btarnoff) Thu 4 Aug 22 05:43
Ari, in response to your message in 15:

Yes, I think your representation of the “pipes” of the internet —
the bottom of the stack — is largely accurate, though I would make a
few qualifications. The internet was not exactly created as a
“public good.” The military justification for funding the first
internet protocol in the mid-1970s was that it might help the US win
wars by enabling computing power to be brought to bear on the
battlefield. This initial vision was not fulfilled, at least not
right away. Rather, in the 1980s the internet protocol was used to
interconnect various fixed-line Pentagon networks, so that their
distinct sets of computers could talk to one another. By the late
1980s, the internet had evolved into a civilian research network,
under the oversight of the National Science Foundation.

Now, there’s no doubt that the internet thrived under public
management. In fact, it’s hard to conceive of the private sector
successfully developing a technology that required such generous and
patient funding. But we also have to be honest with ourselves about
the military origins of the internet -- it was, quite simply,
created to kill people. This has the added virtue of inoculating us
against nostalgia: the point is not to turn the clock back to the
era before privatization. Privatization was a creative process;
deprivatization must be no less creative.
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #23 of 62: Craig Maudlin (clm) Thu 4 Aug 22 09:43
Thanks Ben. You remind me that taking a hard, honest look at the history
of most (if not *all*) of the key technologies that sustain humans
today have a significant military component to their origin stories.

The notion of 'dual-use' technologies really goes back a long way
(rocks and spears?).
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #24 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 4 Aug 22 11:22
Ben, you make a good point about the military origins of the
internet, and indeed, you go into more detail in your book. But, the
Internet wasn't the only infrastructure technology that has military
roots. Bismark's rail network in Germany was considered key in
military terms, even though it also had civilian uses. Likewise, the
US interstate highway system, and a host of civic road standards
likewise have roots in military requirements. 

One difference, of course, is that when the Eisenhower highway
system was planned, road transportation was reasonably
well-understood, especially when compared to the networks running
tcp/ip - in the latter case, it wasn't clear what it was good for,
much less that it had civilian uses.

But, I have to wonder if the assumption that privatization was the
proper path for the government would get out of the internet
infrastructure service (as opposed to what happened with power or
water utility companies, say, in earlier generations) is very much a
product of its time - the handover happened in 1993, if I read your
book correctly, a time when post-Reagan "business is everything"
thinking was in full voice.

I'm not sure that it ultimately matters, except to help us remind
ourselves that there are other models, and they are in force around
the country (and elsewhere in the world).
inkwell.vue.521 : Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People
permalink #25 of 62: Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 4 Aug 22 11:30
Ack. Notes missing. You make exactly that point, and talk about
alternatives that were proposed at the time, from Daniel Inouye's
proposal of non-profit carve-outs (similar to Public Radio use of
airwaves), or Tom Grundner's (Cleveland Free-Net) proposed
"Corporation for Public Cybercasting."

Alas for activists, at the time most groovy political folks were
still transitioning from viewing computers, in general, as the great
Satan, and remarkably few (other than techies such as Tom who saw
the political ramifications) were online at the time, much less
willing to devote resources to the "Digital Divide" or related
issues. (My never humble opinion.) We failed to successfully make
the case that this mattered.


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