James Muldoon, an author and senior lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter, goes even further. “There is nothing necessarily progressive about decentralisation,” he writes in a recent article, Why Web3 Can’t Fix the Internet. He thinks Web3 is “unlikely to meaningfully redistribute value because it doesn’t challenge the fundamental drive to commodification that now dominates the web.” Despite the analogy of public squares, all too often crypto communities feel exclusive and impenetrable – more like private members clubs tacked on to the side of Web2’s sprawling mall complex.
“My view is that the internet is broken because it’s a business,” Ben Tarnoff, author of Internet For The People: The Fight For Our Digital Future, tells me. “That is, the internet’s various dysfunctions and depredations are inextricable from the fact that it is owned by private firms and run for profit.” If it is this profit motive that is breaking the internet – making it fit, not for public use, but for plunder by the world’s richest men – then inserting digital token systems into online communities won’t be enough to radically transform it. As Tarnoff puts it, “a better internet would be one in which people, and not profit, rule.”
There is growing momentum behind the idea of deprivatising the internet; of treating it as a public good. In his book, Tarnoff argues for creating a public stack in which each layer of our digital media – even the pipes that carry the Internet across oceans and into our homes – is democratised. Other activists and theorists are thinking along similar lines. Some have argued for breaking up platform monopolies into smaller firms, or, as James Muldoon suggests in his book Platform Socialism, devolving ownership and control to tech workers and users as co-operatives.
Others such as Alexander Monea, author of The Digital Closet: How The Internet Became Straight, suggest platforms should be publicly owned. “I think the internet should be a public utility,” Monea says, “including everything from its physical infrastructure and access to the web to the platforms that increasingly constitute the entirety of our experience of the internet.”
So, what would a public internet look like?
“If I had to imagine it,” Monea says, “it would be a simple interface for sharing, engaging with, and discovering multimedia content, likely with a simplistic and/or throwback interface.” He suggests a mixture of “Reddit without the toxicity and Craigslist without the lack of accountability, perhaps with elements of Twitch and TikTok mixed in.” But perhaps the best model we already have is Wikipedia.
Potentially, then, transforming the internet from a private mall into a public library might mean it doesn’t look all that different. Users could still chat, create and share content, and join communities, but the major change would be that it’s not monetised with targeted ads. This would, in turn, remove the incentives to harvest personal data through surveillance.
The crucial thing is that, as Tarnoff puts it, “an internet where the people rule” – from municipally and cooperatively owned broadband networks, to worker-owned, app-based services and self-governing social media communities – would mean viewing the internet as a core infrastructure and essential utility on par with water and electricity. “In a better world,” London-based artist Cecile B. Evans suggests, “the answer to ‘what would a better internet look like?’ would be ‘(trans)nationalised.’”
The fight for a better internet is, basically, inseparable from the fight for a better world. “When I see breathlessly long threads describing gonzo resistance tactics in reaction to the takeover of Twitter by an apartheid trust fund,” Evans says, “I wish people would stick to using that energy to imagine dismantling whatever version of capitalism we’re in.”
Essentially, we can either have a democratic, public internet that prioritises comfort and collective safety, or a commercialised internet that delivers profits to a handful of white men in California. Creating a better internet means striving for solidarity and social justice. Another world is possible. And, as Ben Tarnoff says, “another social media is possible, but we must fight to make it so.”