We Need a Public Service Internet to Free Us from Big Tech’s Grasp

We Need a Public Service Internet to Free Us from Big Tech’s Grasp

The profit-led business models of big tech are harming democracy. We should look to the tradition of public media to help us find alternatives

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“Big tech”—aka Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft—now outdoes the notorious trusts of the Gilded Age in their raw power. Much of it rests in the hands of some of the wealthiest men in the world. They share not just vast reach and influence, but a common thirst for maximum profit, to the detriment of the public interest.

We’ve seen the results, now too familiar, in everything from a widespread adolescent mental health crisis to increased political polarization. Critics such as Shoshana Zuboff, Tim Wu and Siva Vaidhyanathan, as well as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s October testimony on the ways in which Facebook’s leadership repeatedly prioritized profit over safety decisions, have focused on the direct relationship between big tech’s rapacious profit-seeking business model and subsequent civic and individual harms. For them, far from isolated incidents of errors and misjudgement, the damage caused by digital platforms—ranging from anxiety to extremism to loss of privacy to misinformation—is evidence of a malignant profit system working. It is the natural consequence of the way digital businesses now work, where they encourage platform users to stay as long as possible on their sites in order to monetize their attention. Crucially, there is evidence that divisive, emotional and potentially harmful content drives attention online, and therefore not only are companies not incentivized to remove harmful content, they are actually incentivized to promote it—regardless of the ramifications. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama expands on the democratic implications of this—arguing in the Journal of Democracy that it is “unsurprising that these platforms have been blamed for propagating conspiracy theories, slander, and other toxic forms of viral content: This is what sells.”

The social and democratic impacts show no sign of abating. Indeed, the rapid development of generative AI technologies may intensify technology’s influence on domains as varied as culture, business, politics, health and education. The risks posed are even more extreme—from increased market concentration to election fraud to even the demise of the human race.

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We should not be content to leave the prospects for democracy, the labor market and humanity’s existence in the hands of billionaire tech moguls. We need an Internet that instead puts the public and democracy first.

The past can offer us a guide to an alternative route forward. In the U.K., public service broadcasting has dominated the airwaves since the creation of the BBC in 1922.The original vision of John Reith, the BBC’s first director-general, was to use the power of broadcasting for a moral purpose— to “inform, educate and entertain.” In contrast to rules-based regulation that protects individuals against harms, public service broadcasting is explicitly set up to deliver “positive” goals—such as informed citizenship, trusted information, equal access to knowledge, cultural diversity, equity and representation and shared cultures and identities. These goals are delivered through a mix of public ownership, public funding and regulatory obligations for specific broadcasting institutions—for example to produce a certain amount of news and current affairs programs.

Other countries take different approaches. In the U.S., for example, PBS receives more of its income from philanthropy, and focuses more narrowly on serving “market failure” genres such as news, documentaries and children’s programming, as opposed to broader entertainment. Whatever the approach, public service broadcasting across the world treats the audience first and foremost as citizens participating in a society, rather than as consumers in a marketplace.

This isn’t how big tech sees us. It is a widely held view within social science that technology is never neutral; it is always shaped by political, social and economic forces as well as human values and choices. The birth of the Internet was heavily influenced by the libertarian philosophies of early Silicon Valley founders, and our current approach to technology regulation has been predominantly shaped by neoliberal desires to favor economic growth and consumerism. These ideologies should not determine the limits of our imagination, however. Given all that is at stake, it is time to ask whether public service–based business models could provide better outcomes—for democracy and citizens.

There are many different ideas for what a “public service Internet” might look like. For example, media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has established the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, which aims to build and research digital tools, including social networks, that promote civic goals rather than commercial ones. Public broadcasters from Belgium, Canada, Germany and Switzerland have collaborated with nonprofit organization New Public to form a “public spaces incubator,” which is aimed at identifying formats and tools that will encourage positive, meaningful online conversations that are free of abuse and harassment—in contrast to those offered by the commercial platforms. Political economist Victor Pickard advocates for the development of public media centers that can operate as anchor institutions to deliver news and journalism across digital platforms. Other proposals in the field include technological solutions such as more ethical software standards, regulatory reforms such as how to develop “public utilities” obligations, and structural changes such as the development of alternative models of ownership such as “platform cooperatives” or “digital commons,” or the creation of new publicly owned and funded institutions. However, these are now typically disparate, self-initiated projects and ideas—rather than policy-designed interventions with incentives, scale or funding attached.

Whatever form it takes, we need a public service approach that proactively supports the development of nontoxic search and social media spaces, in which users have access to diverse, high-quality knowledge, culture and social connections without being required to turn themselves into products in return.

Technology policy in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere has to date been predominantly reactive—trying to limit the harms caused by platforms—rather than proactively articulating a forward-looking vision in which technology nurtures and supports our civic values. It is time to be more intentional about the kind of role we want digital platforms to play in our lives. Public service broadcasting reminds us that policy makers around the world have acted in the past to develop a philosophy for technology that puts people over profit. We must once again do so to deliver a public service Internet.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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