All too frequently, liberal societies struggle to articulate what a good Internet would look like.
Some of it is hubris, a hangover from the days we celebrated the sight of smartphones in Tahrir Square and thought Twitter would be the vanguard of democracy as the world moved online.
Some of it is plain short-sightedness. While the architects of the Internet were thinking about tomorrow, we were worrying about yesterday. We are obsessed with problems and short on solutions. We see digital technology as something that happens to us, something to react to, to clean up, rather than something to steer. Our political leaders are far more adept at identifying what they don’t like about the Internet than identifying what they do.
More dangerous still are blueprints for a future Internet that fail to challenge the most important paradigms. These tend to look like calls for better, safer, more palatable platforms, but the same platforms, still built on data monopolies, attention economies and shareholder demands.
Some of it is down to a language gap. We are trapped in a lexicon that from the start was too broad, too diffuse: words like safe, community, and platform, or ancient metaphors like the Public Square. This vocabulary is further twisted by millions of dollars of public relations money, and deceptive labels like sharing or reach or influence which all obscure the ways in which global technology companies have rewritten the language that underpins our societies, media and politics.
Some of it is plain old disagreement. No two democracies are alike. There are things we agree on, and things we don’t. Since the turn of the millennium, new democracies have sprung up, bringing their own hopes and fears and values, while old democracies have found their institutions to be built on foundations less solid than they might have hoped. From the US to Taiwan, from India to Germany, there is no true consensus on what liberal democratic values ought to be, less still consensus on how to realise these values online.
To realise a Good Web, we need to flip the script, and challenge the status quo with proactive plans. We must understand that democracies need things to work: things like public space, private space, access to good quality information, freedom of expression, and protections for human rights. We have tried outsourcing them, mostly to the private sector: that experiment must now end.
Changes to the Internet happen when people do things. Developers build stuff, and that stuff forms the bedrock of digital society. It’s here where we need change: in development, not in production, to borrow a phrase from programming. Tacking a fact-checking service or ‘redirect method’ onto the side of a freewheeling technology like Facebook is a waste of time, and twenty years too late anyway. Demanding platforms protect “democratically important content” while stamping out “misinformation” is wishful thinking that fails to tackle how and why monopoly tech platforms are designed. We need to affect the ways in which the Internet is being built, from top to toe.
This is a call for innovation and support and celebration: sluggish, iterative changes to platforms fundamentally designed to resist them and beholden to profit or entrenched political power is getting us nowhere. We can cautiously applaud positive changes as damage control, but enough with the PR-exercise ‘solutions’ that cling to the side of platforms like limpets on a tanker: celebrating this nonsense does nothing but dig us deeper into a hole. Enough with the democratic experiments that amount to little more than opinion polling. Pour that money into people, businesses and civil society that are trying something new. Celebrate them, fund them, but guide them: help them listen to the demands and responsibilities of democracy, and feed those demands into the lines of code and the standards and protocols and infrastructure they sit on.
Whether they are the goals of Internet design, the goals of regulation, or the expectations of Internet users, we demand three principles be adhered to: powerful citizens, a digital commons, and a commitment to openness that ensures it is safe, what we call securitized openness. Without strong citizens, a functioning commons and security, a democracy would be considered in crisis: the digital revolution changes nothing about this.
The case is a simple one: democracies demand democratic infrastructure, and provision of that infrastructure should be public, transparent and equitable.
This is not a call simply for greater state funding and control, but for the development and support of digital technology that distributes power securely and lowers barriers to active participation. From top to bottom, across the entire digital technology stack. This means international cooperation on digital infrastructure, an embrace of protocols over platforms, provision over profit, and defence of open standards. It means an end to relentless, permission-lite data extraction. It means redesigning our online tools to empower citizens not indenture serfs. All this while ensuring the system as a whole is safe, secure, and robust in the face of authoritarian assault.
Routes towards this kind of Internet are plentiful and varied. Some will be big, requiring enormous investment and international agreement. Others may require little, by surgically targeting critical weak points in the status quo.
This is a look back as much as a look forward: many of the hopes of the Internet’s early architects were for a just, free and egalitarian online world. Its early voices warned states – weary giants of flesh and steel – from trying to interfere, but it wasn’t just the state they should have worried about: it is private corporations who are for the most part responsible for today’s Internet.
Below, we ask some questions we hope test some key requirements of democratic systems, and ask if they can currently be met by anyone except private companies?
Can I carry out essential activities outside of a commercial space? Or is my access to information, or my ability to organise or communicate, subject to the decisions made by private corporations or used for profit making?
It is our argument that the development of the Internet has left some critical democratic functions in the hands of non-democratic actors, and that those functions should be moved into the layer of democratic infrastructure.
The Good Web is a public infrastructure project.