You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Free the Internet

A handful of companies control the web. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Twenty-three years ago, computer programmer and writer Ellen Ullman noticed a change in the internet. In a lecture at the University of Vermont in 1999, she observed that between 1995 and 1998, it went from being a “private dream,” which one might experience in moments away from “real life,” to a site of extreme individualism, in which companies attempted “to isolate the individual within a sea of economic activity.” She described a Packard Bell ad from that time: First, it shows a seething dystopian city complete with groaning slaves and Gestapo-like police patrolling the public library. Then it cuts to a breezy house with a computer, surrounded by green grass. “Wouldn’t you rather be home?” The point was to encourage people who could afford it to desert the agora for the hearth, to withdraw from public life into a safe and suburbanized individualism.

It could be argued that today the internet is actually very social—perhaps too social. It certainly isn’t devoid of argument, and any committed user of platforms from Reddit to Telegram to TikTok might argue that it’s a boon for community. But much of that activity is circumscribed by corporate motivations in exactly the ways Ullman saw coming as Y2K dawned. There’s a lot of discussion today, including in Congress, about why parts of the web are so toxic and what to do about it—better content moderation? Updated monopoly laws?—but it seems that no one wants to say that the problem is that the web was commercialized in the first place. It’s hard at this point to imagine what anything else would look like.

Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future
by Ben Tarnoff
Verso, 272 pp., $24.95

In this stalled conversation, Ben Tarnoff’s new book, Internet for the People, makes a striking intervention. Tarnoff is blunt about why things suck so bad: “The internet,” he proposes, “is broken because the internet is a business.” What if it weren’t? Tarnoff is co-founder of Logic, a magazine about tech that publishes a variety of journalists and tech workers and insiders, in a unique blend of technical expertise and radical analysis. By retelling the story of the internet with a focus on those who have tried to democratize it—ranging from a collective in Detroit that improves neighborhood internet access to visionary officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who introduced cheap, fast internet for everybody—his book reveals the hidden history of the internet and expands our ideas about its possible futures. His strategy for change is more thoroughgoing than what’s on offer from Web3 boosters, billionaire founders, or even well-meaning regulators. He advocates nothing less than deprivatizing the internet.

In the beginning, the state owned the internet. The federal government created the basic infrastructure in the 1960s and ’70s, thinking it could improve military communications and planning, and developed a protocol that made it possible for computers to exchange messages so that users could collaborate across large distances. The internet, Tarnoff notes, was “designed to run anywhere because the US military is everywhere.” Universities soon began to gain access to this useful tool, allowing them to collaborate on research with the Defense Department, but also among themselves. In the 1980s, the National Science Foundation invested in a big nationwide network, essentially a new backbone for the internet with many regional connections. It was pricey to build, but a boon for access: Ordinary researchers, and not just those with ties to the military, could log on.

The government’s plan had always been to turn the infrastructure over to private companies eventually, and, as demand grew, the network became overloaded and ready for change. But the current system of private ownership by a few corporate giants was not inevitable. There were plenty of other proposals at the time for how the internet could evolve. Telecom companies could be required to reserve some of their capacity to give public institutions like libraries free internet, or the government could have decided to maintain and develop the original backbone, in order to give rural communities cheap and speedy access. What followed instead was a victory for private companies “so complete that it became nearly invisible.” The government abandoned the existing network (much of the physical infrastructure had technically been leased from private companies), eliminating the publicly controlled foundation of the internet. Now, a few businesses were allowed to offer competing internet infrastructures with practically no oversight. Tarnoff notes that there was no big social movement around this obscure issue demanding otherwise.

What’s striking about the privatization of internet infrastructure is how poorly it serves everyone. Tarnoff notes that Americans pay some of the highest rates in the world for internet access that is relatively slow and very spottily distributed. In 2018, nearly half the country lacked access to a broadband connection. We saw the fallout from this when rural and poor students were instructed to take classes online during the Covid-19 pandemic but didn’t have broadband, and therefore lacked internet that was fast and reliable enough to let them consistently participate in classes. A 2021 study cited by The New York Times estimated that 42 million Americans live in areas where they are simply unable to buy broadband. The reason for this anemic coverage? “The high fees extracted from users aren’t being reinvested to build better infrastructure,” Tarnoff reports, “but to enrich executives and investors.”

For contrast, Tarnoff describes an experiment in Chattanooga. The city developed its own broadband service, which launched in 2010, and is commonly known as the Gig, named after its speed: 1 gigabit per second. The network is so fast because the city used a bond issue and a stimulus grant to build infrastructure that actually reached everyone’s homes. The city also ensured access and reasonable rates, including big discounts for low-income internet users.

Tarnoff also cites the Detroit Community Technology Project, designed to expand access in the city. There, a locally controlled system of transmitters beams steeply discounted internet into people’s homes and also gives residents access to an “intranet,” or a private network that they can use to share information about what’s happening in their community and what resources are available for food and transit. The program also trains “digital stewards,” who come from the neighborhoods in question and learn to maintain the network through repairs, equipment installations, and explaining the technology to older neighbors. The project not only solves a practical problem but increases democratic control over technology used by the community and encourages a more social experience of the internet.

All of this sounds lovely, so why isn’t it the norm?

Well, think back to that discount Chattanooga gives to low-income internet users. The city had set out to offer internet access “for even less,” Tarnoff writes, but can’t, because “a state law prohibits utilities from selling services below cost to prevent them from undercutting private firms.” Not only that: When Chattanooga tried to set up its cheap, fast internet, Comcast sued, claiming that it was worried about being “allowed to compete in a fair environment.” Internet service providers have brought such lawsuits all over the country against tiny networks that threaten their control over internet access and set an example for better service. One would think that an advantage of the big networks would be their reach, but this isn’t the case; big ISPs receive billions from the federal government—from you and me—with the goal of expanding access but have repeatedly failed to deliver for rural and low-income users.

The privatized internet is not just expensive and unreliable; it has also unleashed a range of corrosive social forces, from an upswelling in hate groups and harassment, to the rise of unprecedented systems of surveillance, to the hollowing out of large portions of the labor market. The major Web 2.0 companies, from Facebook to Uber, don’t like to take responsibility for these transformations. They claim they are simply platforms, enabling users to connect with other users.

Tarnoff prefers to think of them, instead, as more like malls. They are private spaces designed for commerce, not public spaces meant for open-ended creativity. Everything that happens inside these spaces is calibrated to generate a profit. You don’t have to buy something on Facebook in order to make money for Facebook, when the company can profit from data on what you looked at, who you interacted with, and for how long. Tarnoff quotes a former Amazon executive talking to the BBC about his former employer: “They happen to sell products, but they are a data company.”

Tracking online movements and holding users’ attention have become the core business of the major online platforms. In turn, data lubricates companies’ paths to venture capital and other fundraising by promising revenue streams far beyond whatever the company actually sells. Now, “smart” technology from watches to thermostats has extended data collection into most people’s lives away from their desks or phones. As Tarnoff writes: “Sun Microsystems once had a slogan, credited to chief scientist John Gage: The network is the computer. The phrase has become infinitely truer than it was when it was first coined in the 1980s. The network is the computer, and the computer is everywhere.” In other words, the small gadgets that populate your personal life are cogs in one big data-collecting machine, feeding off your life, and into the intelligence of Google and Amazon.

None of this would matter so much, except that platforms have become “inequality machines” that “push risks downward and spread them around. They pull rewards upward and focus them in fewer hands.” This is a familiar story—who hasn’t followed the travails of Uber drivers and compared their conditions to those of their erstwhile boss Travis Kalanick, who made a couple of billion off the company even after being fired? But Tarnoff makes the point that the business models of the privatized internet have been responsible for creating “islands of super-profits in a sea of stagnation.” As traditional working-class jobs in manufacturing have declined, web companies have relied on “predatory inclusion”: offering low-wage digital piecework to working-class people, and targeting those same demographics with exploitative advertising supported by relentless digital tracking.

Meanwhile, the same companies that bolster predatory inclusion also play host to explicitly racist and sexist material, because of the ways that algorithms reflect human biases, and because of the innovative and well-funded efforts of right-wing activists to game search engine results and exploit online advertising. In the attention economy, it doesn’t necessarily behoove companies like Facebook to control disgusting content—if it draws eyeballs.

Tarnoff’s book is part of a re-democratizing project, from its sourcing to its recommendations. He cites widely, from experts in predatory inclusion like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Safiya Umoja Noble to Marxist theorists like Felix Guattari and Stuart Hall, but to understand what Uber has done to its workers, he turns to Doug Schifter. Schifter had been a black livery car driver in New York for decades, and wrote regularly for Black Car News about the catastrophe that ensued when Uber created a massive increase in drivers and forced prices down. People like Schifter could no longer make a living, no matter how much they drove. On February 5, 2018, he drove to City Hall and shot and killed himself.

Tarnoff delves into Schifter’s columns to show drivers’ growing desperation as their profession collapses as a middle-class job. “There are too many feeding off the same pie,” Schifter wrote before his death, “and there is not enough for everyone.” Tarnoff demonstrates the damage Uber did because it was designed as an online mall. It exercised total control over its private space: Drivers were rated, and Uber could kick them off the platform. Uber was a middleman: The company facilitated the exchange between passengers and drivers, making both dependent on the growing behemoth. Finally, Uber created network effects: It rapidly scaled up, often by bulldozing local taxi regulations. Many times, Uber evaded those rules by describing itself as an internet company, or a “Transportation Network Company,” rather than a traditional taxi company.

Schifter’s columns were about cabs, but they shine a light on the immiseration caused by the “Uberization” of the economy as a whole, when large tech companies effectively deregulate industries and seize new powers over labor.

Tarnoff doesn’t recommend stripping the internet back to its early days under Defense Department ownership. Instead, he finds inspiration for a new public internet in an unusual source: Angela Davis’s work on prison abolition. Abolitionists are trying not only to eliminate prisons and police but, in Davis’s words, to create a “constellation of alternative strategies and institutions.” What is often considered utopian thinking actually leads to serious political campaigns and creative solutions (see: housing and mental health advocacy associated with the Defund movement), whereas incremental reforms all too often lead to a further entrenchment of the system (see: giving police more funding for training). Similarly, Tarnoff sees increasing privacy regulations and breaking up tech monopolies as positive but insufficient. “A privatized internet,” he says, “will always amount to the rule of the many by the few.”

He draws on examples from the past as well as contemporary experiments to feed the imaginative process. Certainly, Chattanooga and Detroit emerge as good examples of local networks under democratic control that run the pipes better than any monster ISP. (He’s also careful to flag potential problems—a downside of a locally governed network is the problem of local governance of all kinds—that prejudice could override liberal values of inclusion.) Today, the Mastodon network offers a decentralized sort of social media. The open-source software allows users to create their own small communities, governed by their own rules, and then connects these communities in a “Fediverse.” The result is that users have more control, and hateful communities can’t spread their message as quickly. To scale up projects like Mastodon, Tarnoff suggests public investment and the administration of these networks from public libraries, which could provide servers and help people set up accounts.

He also imagines an expansion of worker-run cooperative platforms, citing Up & Go, a New York cleaning service where workers find clients through an app they collectively own. He imagines democratic control over how our data is collected and used, and forcing companies like Facebook to adopt protocols that allow other so-called platforms to interact with them, breaking down the walled gardens. But none of these ideas provides a complete road map to the future, nor can one book hope to lay one. As long as internet policy is the exclusive interest of a handful of specialists, the whole system is as vulnerable as it was when ISPs first privatized the pipes. After all, Tarnoff notes, “creativity is a social act.”

It is also necessarily a political one. When the left wing of the Labour Party took over the Greater London Council in 1981, Tarnoff notes, they established programs to help mitigate the effects of deindustrialization and unemployment. One program involved setting up tech hubs, where people could get training and materials to invent things. Those designs would then go into a product bank accessible both to the public and to private companies. The result was a shrinking of the gap between creators and users, but also a political shift. People in these spaces tended to talk. Several groups began community organizing around energy-efficiency initiatives, which included forming cooperatives and pressuring the government to fund energy conservation. Democratizing tech led participants to pursue more democracy in general.

Naturally, Margaret Thatcher’s government spelled the end of the hubs—demonstrating again that it’s not so much that there’s “no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism, as she famously put it, but that there are so many alternatives, they have to be brutally shut down over and over.

Internet for the People doesn’t address so-called Web3—essentially a rebranding of cryptocurrency and DeFi, or decentralized finance. Blockchain and cryptocurrency proponents claim that these technologies solve the problems Tarnoff describes and make the internet more democratic. Mega–crypto-investor Chris Dixon has called Web3 a “movement,” and last August, Jack Dorsey, who was then Twitter’s CEO, tweeted: “#Bitcoin will unite a deeply divided country. (and eventually: world).” As New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has written, supporters of DeFi “argue that the technology will expand access to financial products and unleash a wave of innovation now hampered by the overlords of traditional finance.”

But many people without Dixon’s millions also believe Web3 is an equalizer, or at least they hold out hope that it might be. In a revealing article about her time lurking in online crypto spaces, writer Sarah Resnick noted the crypto investors had an older average age than she expected (around 38), that about half had no college degree, and nearly half were people of color. She witnessed the aspirations of many investors, which were often more poignant than the bragging of cryptobros. “I’m a girl in uni and take care of my whole family,” one writes. “I’m not here to whine I have accepted how life is and I am patient . I’m going to try so hard to grow my $83.” Another says: “I have only $100 to put in. My wife stays home with our baby and I work full time and do delivery apps on weekends to make extra.”

One way to read this situation is that many of the people investing in crypto are the same people who are drowning in Tarnoff’s “sea of stagnation,” victims of the Uberization of work. Trying to get onto dry ground, they’re putting their faith in investments that have so far proved volatile. The crypto market lost half its value this year. The well-known technologist and writer Jaron Lanier recently told tech journalist Siobhan Roberts that the world of crypto simply hides a new elite—largely made up of the people who were already elites and had the capital to invest in new systems. (Dixon and Dorsey are good examples.) The liberating promise of Web3, therefore, appears to be another instance of predatory inclusion.

The democratic nature of crypto also turns out to be overhyped. Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal, has pointed out that, despite its reputation for decentralization, blockchain technology depends on a small number of large businesses that run its servers. In other words, far from being the sort of utopian dreaming that Tarnoff advocates, much of the Web3 ecosystem is actually shaped and circumscribed by elites with a financial interest in what the rest of us do on the internet. Some thought we were finally breathing fresh air, but we’re just in the courtyard of the same stupid mall.

So why is the world of the blockchain and Bored Ape NFTs getting so much more hype than the ideas Tarnoff puts forward here? One answer, of course, is that it’s appealing to present an accessible technology as the solution to a complicated political problem. Our collective contempt for our dysfunctional political process funnels people toward libertarian solutions. But another answer is the depressing fact that crypto has received the enthusiastic promotion of elites. Crypto ads adorn subways, soccer stadiums, and the Super Bowl airwaves. Early investors included the Winklevoss twins, of Facebook fame. Everyone from Jimmy Fallon to Steph Curry promoted Bored Ape NFTs, collectively setting a new bar for bad art and creative bullshit.

Tarnoff’s book provides an invaluable framework for thinking critically about the internet, and I can see it becoming a handbook for those who would like to change it. We may be living in a “grift economy” defined by chaotic speculation, but the history Tarnoff offers shows that the answer is not to go back to some world before Bitcoin. Rather, it’s to shift from an internet that’s for sale to one that belongs to all of us. In this world, you can imagine Ullman’s isolated internet user stepping out of her home, walking over to a neighbor’s house, and using her city-sponsored training to help them with their connection. The internet is a tool that we could still take into our own hands and use to bring one another closer.