From now on He writes that the U.S. Senate is expected to soon pass a couple of ambitious antitrust laws targeting the dominant Internet platforms. The European Union is finalizing its own set of new regulations. And the states of the United States are passing laws, some better, some worse, that seek to fight a technology industry that is widely seen as out of control.
For Ben Tarnoff, these developments are sadly inadequate. In a forthcoming book, Internet for people, argues that the problems of the Internet are fundamentally linked to profit; only a step to public ownership can solve them.
“Internet reformers have good ideas, but they never get to the root of the problem,” he writes. “The root is simple: the Internet is broken because the Internet is a business.”
Tarnoff looks promising in the successful examples of municipally owned and cooperative broadband networks across rural America. But what does it mean to put the web itself, the websites and the applications we use every day, under public ownership? Tarnoff recently spoke with WIRED to outline his vision of a socialist Internet and how to achieve it.
This interview has been condensed and slightly edited.
WIRED: The central argument of your book is that we need to “deprivate” the Internet. This implies that it was previously public.
Ben Tarnoff: Internet protocols, which are the rules that allow Internet networks to communicate with each other, were invented in the 1970s by DARPA researchers. The Pentagon then used these protocols to interconnect various networks, beginning in the 1980s. This network of networks then passes to federal civilian control, under the National Science Foundation.
The pivotal year is 1995, when the National Science Foundation ends its backbone, a central artery of the Internet until then called NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. So that’s where privatization begins as a process: in the so-called internet basement, with the pipes.
There are many sites around the world that have much faster and much cheaper internet than in the US, and it is provided by the private sector. So the problem here is privatization or deregulation? The Internet was not only delivered to the private sector in the US, but it was delivered on super favorable terms.
You’re pointing out something important for people to understand, which is that the U.S. has a very concentrated market for internet services. We have four companies that control 76 percent of our country’s Internet subscriptions. As a result, we pay some of the most expensive rates in the world for a horrible service. I mean, we pay higher average monthly prices than people in Europe or Asia. Our average connection speed is lower than in Romania and Thailand.
This seems like an argument in favor of enforcing antitrust law to increase competition, rather than getting rid of the whole concept of for-profit internet service providers.
Ask an interesting question: Is my goal just better speed at a lower cost? Or is there something else? Research shows that bringing competition to the highly concentrated Internet services market in the United States will almost certainly improve speeds and reduce costs. It is a very important goal. But it is not enough, for two reasons. One is that competition tends to work better for people who are worth competing for, that is, competition is better for lowering the prices of high-end broadband packages. Where competition is less effective is to bring connectivity closer to people who can’t really afford it or who live in communities, especially in rural communities, where it is not profitable to invest under any circumstances.