We Should Own the Internet—Not Silicon Valley Oligarchs

It’s time to stop treating high-speed internet as a luxury commodity and instead place it under democratic and public control.

Thomas M. Hanna and Isaiah J. Poole 

The Covid-19 crisis shows why we need democratic control over our digital infrastructure. (Getty Images / Andrew Brookes)

In ear­ly May, the New York Times pub­lished a pho­to of Beth Revis, a fic­tion writer in Ruther­ford­ton, North Car­oli­na, scrunched into the back of a small vehi­cle in a park­ing lot. There, she was using her smart­phone to try to teach a class, using the only reli­able inter­net con­nec­tion she had access to — the free Wi-Fi sig­nal ema­nat­ing from inside a local pub­lic ele­men­tary school. 

This crisis has clearly illustrated how digital infrastructure has become critical to the functioning of our economy and society.

As schools shut down and work­places go remote as the result of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans like Revis have become increas­ing­ly reliant on inter­net access for their jobs, edu­ca­tion and social interactions.

This cri­sis has clear­ly illus­trat­ed how dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture — the core assets and ser­vices on which a vast array of infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies rely — has become crit­i­cal to the func­tion­ing of our econ­o­my and soci­ety. It is, in a sense, the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the inter­state high­ways, rail­way tracks, tele­phone net­works and elec­tric­i­ty sys­tems that formed the back­bones of the 20th-cen­tu­ry economy.

How­ev­er, in the Unit­ed States, mar­ket-led deploy­ment of this crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture — along with ser­vice pro­vi­sion dom­i­nat­ed by a small oli­gop­oly of giant telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions cor­po­ra­tions — has led to inad­e­quate devel­op­ment and severe inequities. For instance, accord­ing to the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Commission’s esti­mates (which many experts think are high­ly under­stat­ed), more than 21 mil­lion Amer­i­cans don’t have access to even a min­i­mal high-speed broad­band con­nec­tion of at least 25 mbps. Inter­net access in the Unit­ed States is also gen­er­al­ly far slow­er and more expen­sive than in most oth­er advanced countries.

Unavail­able or unaf­ford­able inter­net puts cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties at a dis­ad­van­tage and rein­forces inequal­i­ty. For instance, while one in five White Amer­i­cans don’t have high-speed inter­net at home, that ratio is rough­ly one in three for Black Amer­i­cans, and one in 2.5 for Lat­inx Amer­i­cans. As numer­ous reports have indi­cat­ed, com­mu­ni­ties with inad­e­quate inter­net access have been unable to access remote learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties dur­ing the pandemic.

If school clo­sures per­sist, these stu­dents will like­ly fall even fur­ther behind their wealth­i­er, and often whiter, peers. Pre­lim­i­nary data from the Covid-19 cri­sis in the Unit­ed States is already reveal­ing stark racial and socioe­co­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties con­cern­ing who is affect­ed med­ical­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly and social­ly. This lack of afford­able and acces­si­ble inter­net is like­ly to only exac­er­bate these inequalities.

A new report released by The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive (US) and Com­mon Wealth (UK) con­tends that it is time to stop treat­ing high-speed inter­net like a lux­u­ry com­mod­i­ty and instead con­sid­er it pub­lic infra­struc­ture. And as with oth­er infra­struc­ture, this means tak­ing it out of the hands of cor­po­ra­tions and putting it under demo­c­ra­t­ic and pub­lic control.

In the Unit­ed States, one way to real­ize this vision is to empow­er and sup­port com­mu­ni­ties that want to estab­lish their own broad­band inter­net net­works. First and fore­most, this means pass­ing fed­er­al-lev­el leg­is­la­tion that over­turns pro-cor­po­rate, state-lev­el pre­emp­tion laws” that ban or restrict munic­i­pal­i­ties from launch­ing or expand­ing their own pub­lic broad­band net­works. Sens. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) both sup­port­ed such action dur­ing their recent pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, and leg­is­la­tion to this effect — called the Com­mu­ni­ty Broad­band Act — has been intro­duced in Con­gress by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D‑Calif.) and Sen. Cory Book­er (D‑N.J.).

Rather than impede their devel­op­ment, fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments should also direct­ly help finance and pro­vide tech­ni­cal assis­tance to munic­i­pal and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty-based broad­band net­works. That would be a far more effec­tive and equi­table use of pub­lic resources than the FCC’s cur­rent patch­work of sub­sidy pro­grams, which large­ly ben­e­fit the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies themselves.

A par­al­lel effort should take place with regards to 5G wire­less. In the Unit­ed States, just three large cor­po­ra­tions—AT&T, Ver­i­zon and T‑Mobile—are poised to con­trol vir­tu­al­ly all of the nation’s 5G wire­less infra­struc­ture for at least the near future. Yet there is noth­ing to pre­vent a new racial and class dig­i­tal divide grow­ing around this emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy. A pub­lic option” in the wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor builds on the prece­dents set by such pub­lic own­er­ship exam­ples as Germany’s major­i­ty own­er­ship of Deutsche Telekom and Norway’s major­i­ty own­er­ship of Telenor, and was even report­ed­ly being con­sid­ered by Pres­i­dent Trump in response to China’s grow­ing state-con­trolled dom­i­nance in the sec­tor. A pub­licly-owned wire­less net­work could help address mar­ket fail­ures, reduce cor­po­rate pow­er, pro­vide com­pet­i­tive pres­sures that would low­er costs and stim­u­late inno­va­tion, and gen­er­ate rev­enue to cross-sub­si­dize oth­er need­ed pub­lic ser­vices and investments. 

We should also con­sid­er new, inno­v­a­tive ways to think about one of the public’s most valu­able renew­able resources, the wire­less spec­trum (some­times known as the pub­lic air­waves). This asset is man­aged on behalf of the pub­lic by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, which keeps some fre­quen­cies for pub­lic pur­pos­es and leas­es oth­ers out to var­i­ous types of com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies. The FCC cur­rent­ly con­ducts extreme­ly lucra­tive spec­trum auc­tions, net­ting tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue for the gov­ern­ment. Rather than sim­ply being deposit­ed in the Trea­sury, these pro­ceeds could, for instance, be used to cap­i­tal­ize demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly gov­erned pub­lic trust funds that would be tasked with mak­ing invest­ments in dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture, such as munic­i­pal broad­band, as well as local jour­nal­ism and media.

Final­ly, these strate­gies should, ulti­mate­ly, be cou­pled with democ­ra­tiz­ing cloud com­put­ing ser­vices. These ser­vices, over­whelm­ing­ly con­trolled by just three com­pa­nies — Ama­zon, Google and Microsoft — are the ter­rain upon which most of today’s inter­net activ­i­ty takes place. This cor­po­rate con­trol leads to pro­hib­i­tive­ly high costs for small­er com­pa­nies seek­ing cloud ser­vices, excludes small­er cloud com­peti­tors, stalls inno­va­tion, and gives these pow­er­ful and large­ly unac­count­able actors cor­po­rate con­trol over valu­able per­son­al and busi­ness data. Many experts have sug­gest­ed that if Big Tech com­pa­nies are to be bro­ken up, then cloud com­put­ing would be the log­i­cal, and ide­al, first can­di­date. How­ev­er, since cloud ser­vices play such a foun­da­tion­al role in the mod­ern econ­o­my, it makes lit­tle sense to sim­ply cre­ate new, pri­vate com­pa­nies that would like­ly repli­cate the same abu­sive prac­tices as their pre­de­ces­sors. Rather, they should be spun off from these Sil­i­con Val­ley giants and con­vert­ed into pub­lic util­i­ties account­able to all of us.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic pub­lic own­er­ship of dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture can reduce cor­po­rate con­cen­tra­tion and the out­side polit­i­cal pow­er of the dig­i­tal giants. It can enable us to link the build-out and oper­a­tion of dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture to eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and a Green New Deal. It can be a pow­er­ful tool for address­ing the racial and urban-rur­al dig­i­tal divides. And it can pro­vide a mech­a­nism for peo­ple to assert con­trol and pow­er over their own data. Most fun­da­men­tal­ly, it gives us a new are­na for demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion-mak­ing and a stake in the new sys­tem we seek to build out of the dev­as­ta­tion caused by the cur­rent Covid-19 crisis.

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