How the internet got privatized and what the government could do to fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

How the internet got privatized and what the government could do to fix it
Image: Verso Books

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

“The internet is broken because the internet is a business,” Ben Tarnoff writes in his new book, “Internet for the People: Fight for Our Digital Future.”

Starting with “the pipes” of the internet, Tarnoff walks through its history — from its inception to the dot-com boom to today — landing in a modern U.S. where the internet has become privately owned, expensive, hard to maintain and largely inaccessible to many.

About a third of rural Americans — and almost half of those with annual household incomes below $30,000 — lack broadband connections at home. For about 15% of adults in America, smartphones are their only path to the internet. Average monthly internet costs are higher in America than in Europe or Asia, although median connection speeds have largely caught up.

Tarnoff, a tech worker, author and co-founder of tech magazine Logic, advocates for municipally owned networks as an existing alternative to broadband monopoly in order to most efficiently bring broadband access to the largest volume of Americans. “Community networks challenge privatization by allowing access to a resource they need in order to exercise meaningful control of their lives,” he writes.

In an interview with Protocol, Tarnoff discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Biden’s initiative, the importance of regulating the broadband monopoly, the need to fund community networks and why Web3 may not be the true future of the internet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are your initial thoughts on the Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative?

I worry that the solution that they're proposing will not do much to solve the problem, and may make the problem worse. The problem is real: Americans pay some of the highest rates in the world for internet service, in exchange for awful service.

An astonishing figure, which I like to point out to people, is that in 2018, Microsoft researchers found that 162 million Americans do not use the internet at broadband speeds — and, as you might expect, those who are disconnected are disproportionately rural, low-income [and/or] people of color. So there is genuinely a connectivity crisis in this country.

I think the pandemic in particular laid bare how acute that crisis is, because we had people who had to apply for unemployment insurance, had to work from home, had to attend school from home and couldn't do so. They had to go to the parking lots of churches and other community organizations to try to get decent Wi-Fi. I think we began to understand even more clearly that connectivity is a basic precondition for full participation in our society. It's not a luxury good.

I'm also really curious about the inaccurate FCC broadband maps, which directly affect which areas are eligible for funding. I was wondering why the government has chosen to roll these programs out and accept applications for funding before fixing the maps themselves?

That is a great question. The other question here is, routing this money through the individual states and giving the states a fair bit of leeway in how that is dispersed is an interesting choice. The states, under the terms of this deal, have to submit a letter of intent and then a broadband plan in order to unlock funds. But the states are going to have discretion in how this money is distributed, and I think that that raises another possible source of difficulty. There's all sorts of ways in which states can spend this money that are frankly not very effective.

Something I found interesting is that the second part of the initiative, the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, actually allows tech and telecom companies to apply for funding. How do you see these companies using this to their advantage?

My concern is that it runs the risk, frankly, of being yet another funnel through which public money is directed into the hands of the broadband monopolies.

There's one detail in particular just to illuminate this point in the initiative: One of the requirements for applicants who want to get one of these grants funded with [the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program] money is to produce what's called a standby letter of credit, which is essentially a promise made by a bank on behalf of a client that ensures payment will be made even if the client defaults. It costs money to get that letter of credit. Because, you know, just like with a loan, the bank charges you interest.

This is going to make it difficult if not impossible for smaller ISPs — in particular, municipally owned and cooperatively owned broadband providers — to access these funds. That is a more specific concern about how this money may very well be used to simply line the pockets of executives of broadband monopolies instead of actually giving money to the kind of networks — namely, cooperatively owned networks — that could actually solve the connectivity crisis.

Would it be more affordable for the government to just locate and fund the existing municipally owned networks? I believe you mention in the book that there's around 900 different areas being served by these municipal networks.

I think you're absolutely right. And again, it's important to frame here: What is the problem we're trying to solve? If the problem we're trying to solve is severe inequality in broadband access, then the data shows that community networks are better at getting people connected than corporate providers. So if that's the problem you're trying to solve, then give money to the entities that are actively solving the problem, rather than the entities that are actively creating the problem. That seems like common sense.

Is there an alternative public policy model to the funding of community networks?

We actually have one: Bernie Sanders, during the 2020 Democratic primary, released a plan that he called High-Speed Internet for All. What I think is particularly valuable about Bernie's plan is that he puts the blame for the connectivity crisis where it belongs, which is with the broadband monopolies. His proposal would have provided more than $100 billion in grants and technical assistance to help fund the build of publicly owned and cooperatively owned networks that are democratically controlled by communities. He would have prioritized funding these community networks that are our best solution for solving the connectivity crisis. And further, he would have broken up and more vigorously regulated the broadband monopolies, which I think is an essential ingredient to any real strategy for solving the connectivity crisis.

Do you see a world in which telecom companies could be taxed to pay for initiatives like this?

Certainly, one funding model that has been proposed is to tax the broadband monopolies in order to generate a funding stream that can be used to finance [and] to build out publicly owned and cooperatively owned broadband networks. There is enormous political potential here because these broadband monopolies are extremely unpopular. … And when you look at consumer sentiment reports, ISPs tend to be ranked almost at the bottom of the list: They are even less popular than health insurers and airlines. So there is a lot of political potential here because people generally understand that they're getting ripped off by the broadband [companies], they understand that they're getting a raw deal. And I think it's the type of campaign that would be fairly easy to organize — I can imagine knocking on someone's door anywhere in the United States and having a conversation with them about how much they hate Comcast, and how a local community network would provide them better service at lower cost, and give them the opportunity to participate in these decisions about how this essential infrastructure is going to be deployed.

What do you think of the last part of the initiative, the Digital Equity Act, which would fund digital literacy programs and ensure that people have the skills to use the internet?

On one hand, it is important to be able to give people, particularly older people, the skills that they need to use the internet effectively. A number of organizations, such as the Equitable Internet Initiative in Detroit, have discovered this firsthand. You can’t simply get people connected; you also have to teach them what they can do once they’re connected. There are certain households, particularly with elderly folks, that are going to need that help.

I would add a note of caution here, which is that there has long been a line of thinking, particularly in Democratic policymaking circles, that closing the “digital divide” is somehow going to cure poverty. The scholar Daniel Greene wrote a book about this, and he calls it “The Access Doctrine,” the idea that simply by giving people access to the internet or to computers, you’re going to make it possible for them to upscale into a high-paying job. The reality is that that's simply not the case. We don’t have a skills gap in this country. We do have a shortage of well-paid unionized jobs, but that's ultimately a political choice, it’s not a shortage of digital literacy skills.

So yes, teach people how to use the computer, teach people how to use the internet — but don’t expect that by doing so, you’ll magically make poverty go away. Making poverty go away requires a different set of interventions and frankly, a lot more investment.

If you could speak directly to the FCC and the NTIA, which are working on this initiative, what would you want them to keep in mind?

What I would say is, let's not give money to the people who created this problem. Let's give money to the people who actually have a chance of solving this problem. I understand there are political constraints involved. I understand that the broadband monopolies have an immense amount of money that they use to influence our political system. And I further realize that corruption is an endemic feature of American politics. But, if we really want to do something about the connectivity crisis, we know what to do. There is a solution that is sitting out there — it’s not speculative, it exists.

One of the analogies that has occurred to me is, what if we were to pay tobacco companies billions of dollars in public money to try to solve the epidemic of lung cancer that has resulted from people using their product? That’s more or less our approach, right?

Switching gears a little bit and moving to thinking about the future of the internet itself, some of those who work on Web3 projects say they are building the future of the internet and divesting from Big Tech. What do you think about this and Web3 work in general?

My view is that that's a promising starting point for a conversation. If someone feels that decentralization is the solution to the problems of the internet, what they are saying is that there's something wrong with the internet, which is a correct perception. And further, that what's wrong with the internet is connected to the fact that a handful of companies have managed to acquire extremely concentrated control over the network. And that is also a correct perception.

What I would say, however, is that the solution that Web3 people propose to that problem of intense concentrations of power will not solve that problem, and in fact, may make it worse. Web3 represents a further privatization of further commodification and further marketization of the internet, in different forms, which will generate new concentrations of power rather than distributing or democratizing power.

Do you think that involving normal, average, everyday people who use the internet in these Web3 projects would make any sort of difference to the democratization of the internet? For example, older people who don't have kids at home to play tech support, people who didn’t graduate college or high school, working families with less state-of-the-art technology, etc.

A big part of my political vision is for people who use the internet — the people for whom the internet is an essential infrastructure — to be the legislators of our digital world. You know, I want a world in which we erase the distinction between a user and a creator of technology, that we give people the opportunity to co-create the internet that they use every day. That's the democratic vision that inspires me. But, you know, the particular technical artifacts that compose the internet do matter. And those artifacts often have a politics of their own associated with them. So there are certain technical channels that I think are more or less conducive to a democratic reorganization.

One of my concerns about Web3 is the extent to which it relies on an abstraction like tokens, which suggests in my mind a more financialized version of how the internet works. An internet that is already saturated with markets would become even more so. I don't think that democracy as a human practice is something that thrives in market conditions. The argument that I make in the book is that I think there's a basic incompatibility between the logic of markets and the logic of democracy. To the extent that Web3 is interested in implanting market abstractions like the token into an ever-wider range of our online activities, I think that the effect will be anti-democratic.

A question I find myself having fairly often is, where can we look for hope for the future of the internet? I know in the book you discussed the decentralized social network Mastodon. But is there anything else — new or even old things that stick with you and bring you hope?

One somewhat old thing that actually is not directly related to the internet, but which does give me inspiration, which I discuss in the book, is this effort in the 1980s by the Labour Party in London to democratize the design and the development of technology. What they did was to create these places all over London called Technology Centers, where ordinary people could come in, get connected with machine tools, with technical expertise, and build the tools that they needed in order to live better lives. You could think of them almost as publicly sponsored maker spaces. And out of the use of technology centers, a number of energy-efficiency inventions were created and distributed to the communities that needed them. I really liked that as a model for thinking about how to involve ordinary people in the design, development and deployment of technology.

Correction: This story was updated throughout to clarify some transcription errors.


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