A Realist’s Take on the Future of the Internet: Can we keep the good but jettison the bad?

by Matthew Burton, Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School

The explosion in social media platforms and their ever-increasing role in our lives since the mid-2000s has forced us to consider deep and important questions about how we interact, how we talk to each other and communicate in the 21st century. There are a litany of charges levelled against social media platforms, including the incitement of hatred and violence (there are credible claims that Facebook enabled a genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.); encouraging polarization and echo chambers; harvesting our data in pursuit of surveillance capitalism and promoting false and harmful lifestyles. Discord, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. All of them have come under justified fire.

The internet, and social media, of course is not universally terrible. The brief moment of solidarity felt during the Covid-19 pandemic would have been harder without social media and the BLM movement is an example of a positive force that has at least been galvanized and amplified by social media. How do we keep the good but jettison the bad? Can we?

Legislatures have begun to focus on the regulation of social media and online platforms. Germany has its Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG), Texas has recently passed HB20, which prohibits social media platforms from engaging in viewpoint censorship, and the UK Parliament is currently debating the Online Safety Bill, which enables Ofcom to require social media platforms to remove content that is lawful, but which is deemed harmful to users. So much for John Perry Barlow’s sovereign, unregulated cyberspace.

In a recent book (“Internet for the People”), Ben Tarnoff proposes another way of challenging the power of companies that dominate the internet: deprivatization. He charts the growth of the internet from the 1970s and its privatization, particularly in the United States. The first wave of privatization came of the internet’s foundations and machinery: the basic pipes of the internet. Think of how you’re reading this. The signal going to your smartphone or computer passes through wireless signals and cables, all of which are owned and operated by private companies. Tarnoff argues in favour of community-owned and operated ISPs and providers of the physical infrastructure of the internet, who would provide access as a social good at lower cost than what is currently charged by private companies who operate under the profit motive. This kind of human rights-orientated thinking about the internet exposes the role that the internet plays in modern life. The internet is, as Tarnoff acknowledges, one of the most important elements of critical infrastructure.

Tarnoff then turns to social media companies, which he compares to shopping centres (shopping malls in American parlance). Facebook, the Mind Flayer of the social media world, is a vast and expanding shopping centre. Users interact with it, but it is owned and controlled by Meta and Mark Zuckerberg. Tarnoff subscribes to Sohshana Zuboff’s theory of surveillance capitalism, arguing that the profit motive inherent in capitalism means that privately-owned social media companies will have an unquenchable thirst for more and more engagement and data from its users, with all of the attendant problems that this causes.

Tarnoff’s solution is to deprivatize this element of the internet too. He argues for a proliferation of smaller, community-owned and operated spaces, suggesting that they could be based in structures like libraries within communities, instead of the giant megaliths owned and operated from Silicon Valley. This is a bold vision for the future of the internet and one that deserves to be taken seriously. Anyone who is concerned about modern life and the way that we interact as people ought to be worried about both the behaviour of internet giants (Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Twitter, etc) and about the tendency for Governments to accrue ever stronger powers to monitor and control how we interact online. Any policy agenda that promises to find a third way outside of those twin evils ought to be taken seriously.

Yet, there are two significant flaws in Tarnoff’s plan. The first concerns Tarnoff’s utopian vision for a deprivatized online world and the second is reflected in a rather paternalistic attitude towards the users of the internet: us. First of all, Tarnoff’s vision of an online world populated by smaller, more democratic forms of interactive spaces (Tarnoff rightly eschews the idea that these new spaces would simply replicate existing social media platforms) needs to engage with the real world. Robert Dahl famously observed of direct democracy: it is workable only in micro-spaces. Who will create and organise these new interactive spaces? Who will staff them? What rules would their users be expected to adhere to? How would the rules be applied and enforced, and how would they evolve? Would users have any appeal rights regarding decisions made by the operators? How would those in charge of these interactive spaces be chosen? And, most crucially in any capitalist wage-based economy, how would their labour be remunerated? Tarnoff would likely respond that I am not being imaginative enough in my aspirations for a new kind of interactive space, but these are real, practical questions that are entirely sidestepped so far.

Secondly, Tarnoff largely ignores the role of users in the problems of social media. For Tarnoff, users appear as passive generators of data. But a more complex and realistic picture of social media must acknowledge that users are also active generators of problems and issues to be solved. As Tarnoff acknowledges, “there will still be Nazis on the internet.” (p. 163) Tarnoff’s apparent solution to this is to ban them, noting that users of Gab were larger banned from one of the newer more decentralized interactive spaces Tarnoff champions: Mastodon. But not every user of social media is a Nazi. What about those who use offensive language? Or post explicit content? Or spread disinformation, consciously or unconsciously? Or discourage getting vaccinated? Tarnoff is right to castigate existing social media companies for their many failures, but it is not at all clear that producing smaller, more democratic interactive spaces will solve these problems.

Tarnoff rightly says that many of these speech and content-related problems of social media are not online, but offline problems. They are problems inherent in the nature of us as humans. They are also, as Tarnoff rightly acknowledges, political problems. And this is at the heart of the issue with Tarnoff’s utopian vision for a new online world. These alternative, more democratic spaces are still spaces that will be controlled and operated by someone, even if that someone is a collective of some form. There will always be power imbalances between the owners, operators and users. Tarnoff’s vision of truly egalitarian interactive spaces, like John Perry Barlow’s vision of an ungoverned and ungovernable realm of cyberspace, simply could never exist. Our best, realistic, hope is to focus on shaping the existing structures in a way that protects important rights, both to privacy and freedom of expression. To this end, Tarnoff’s book provides an excellent stepping-stone for anyone wishing to make the argument that access to the internet, and the collaborative and interactive spaces it contains, is an important social good and human right that we should value and cherish. But it doesn’t yet provide us with any concrete or realistic answers to the thorniest issue of the internet age: what do we do about social media?

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