As of this writing, the US Senate is expected to vote soon on a pair of ambitious antitrust bills targeting the dominant internet platforms. The European Union is finalizing its own suite of new regulations. And states around the US are passing laws—some better, some worse—that seek to wrangle a tech industry widely seen as out of control.
To Ben Tarnoff, these developments are woefully inadequate. In a forthcoming book, Internet for the People, he argues that the internet’s problems are fundamentally tied to the profit motive; only a move to public ownership can solve them.
“The internet reformers have some good ideas, but they never quite reach the root of the problem,” he writes. “The root is simple: The internet is broken because the internet is a business.”
Tarnoff sees promise in the successful examples of cooperatively and municipally owned broadband networks throughout rural America. But what would it mean to place the web itself—the websites and apps we use every day—under public ownership? Tarnoff recently spoke to WIRED to lay out his vision for a socialist internet and how to achieve it.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
WIRED: The central argument of your book is that we need to “deprivatize” the internet. That implies that it was once public.
Ben Tarnoff: The internet protocols, which are the rules that allow the networks of the internet to communicate with one another, are invented in the 1970s by DARPA researchers. Then the Pentagon uses those protocols to interconnect various networks, starting in the 1980s. That network of networks then passes into civilian federal control, under the National Science Foundation.
The pivotal year is 1995, at which point the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone, a core artery of the internet up until that time called NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. So that’s where privatization as a process starts: in the so-called basement of the internet, with the pipes.
There are many places around the world that have way faster, way cheaper internet than in the US, and it’s provided by the private sector. So is the problem here privatization, or is it deregulation? The internet wasn’t just handed over to the private sector in the US, it was handed over on super-favorable terms.
You’re pointing to something important for people to understand, which is that the US has a highly concentrated market for internet service. We have four companies that control 76 percent of internet subscriptions in this country. As a result, we pay some of the most expensive rates in the world for awful service. I mean, we pay higher average monthly prices than people in Europe or Asia. Our average connection speeds are below that in Romania and Thailand.
This sounds like an argument for antitrust enforcement to increase competition, rather than getting rid of the whole concept of for-profit internet service providers.
You raise an interesting question: Is my goal simply better speed for lower cost? Or is there something else? Research shows that if you were to bring competition to the highly concentrated market for internet service in the United States, it would almost certainly improve speeds and lower cost. That’s a very important goal. But it’s not quite enough, for two reasons. One is that competition tends to work best for people who are worth competing for, which is to say, competition is best at bringing down prices for higher-end broadband packages. Where competition is not so effective is in bringing connectivity to people who really can’t afford it, or who live in communities, particularly rural communities, in which it’s not profitable to invest under any circumstances.