Today’s internet is largely shaped by a dialog between two ideas. One position considers personal data as a form of property, the opposing position considers personal data as an extension of the self. The latter grants inalienable rights because a person’s dignity - traditionally manifested in our bodies or certain rights of expression and privacy - cannot be negotiated, bought, or sold.
The principled stance has largely lost out. Clive Humby declared that “data is the new oil” and the last twenty years have been a rush to accumulate as much as possible. Even those who oppose personal data held hostage in corporate silos believe that the solution is private property in another form. It’s strange that this perspective is status quo. After all, the internet itself was created with public money and owned by the public; the network’s founding was radically different than its current state.
The perspective shift happened in the 1990s. There were countless people on both sides of the issue but I’ll focus on two: Bill Clinton, president of the United States, and Stefano Rodotà, an Italian jurist, politician, and privacy advocate. By examining their differences, I’ll illustrate a third way which may offer a path towards a more equanimous internet.
Today’s Clintonian Internet
Attending November’s Biennale Tecnologia The Biennale Tecnologia is an annual event that “reflects on the increasingly relevant issue of the relationship between technology and society.”
in Turin, Italy placed the two visions of the internet in stark relief for me. The festival’s final day opened with a reflection on the life of data privacy advocate Stefano Rodotà. Stefano Rodotà (1933-2017) via il Fatto Quotidiano
Rodotà’s motivating philosophy focused on the inherent dignity of the individual as a vehicle to preserve democratic norms. As he said in 2004:
We may believe that we are only discussing data protection; in fact we are dealing with the destiny of our social organizations. […] there is little doubt that privacy is a necessary tool to defend the society of freedom and counteract the drive towards establishment of a society based on surveillance, classification, and social selection.
This outlook stood in contrast to the prevailing headwinds coming from the United States. Rodotà’s appointment as the first President of the Italian Authority for the Protection of Personal Data in 1997 happened at the same time the Clinton Administration released the Framework for Global Electronic Commerce. Original landing page of the Framework for Global Electronic Commerce (1997)
Clinton’s policy fully embraced the belief that the market could suitably steward the growth of the internet. Thus online markets were free to trade in data while the United States government abdicated any real responsibility to protect its citizens from abuse. The policy merely offers a few limp words on the issue of privacy:
The Administration considers data protection critically important. We believe that private efforts of industry working in cooperation with consumer groups are preferable to government regulation, but if effective privacy protection cannot be provided in this way, we will reevaluate this policy.
In other words, “if you don’t keep your room clean there may or may not be consequences.“ Predictably, tech’s room is a mess. Newly unsealed court documents in a case against Facebook “describe data anarchy within the company, where people responsible for data systems are unaware of how other people in the company use their system. In some cases even the engineers using a system may not be able to understand what is happening because, according to a Meta engineer, ‘it is not possible for humans to understand.’”Findings by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Why Ireland? Remember that the Irish Data Protection Commission enforces Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Unlike Clinton, Rodotà felt that there is a place for government in governance. But his warning - and the warnings of privacy advocates around the world - were not heard for 20 more years.
The Internet is Broken
The day at the Biennale Tecnologia ended with a presentation by Ben Tarnoff. Ben was at the Biennale Tecnologia to discuss his excellent new book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future
Ben offers a vision for the future internet with a different set of ground rules.Most current proposals for the internet’s next evolution, often called Web3, are stuck in Clinton-era logic. The aforementioned Framework for Global Electronic Commerce conveys a belief that civic governance stops the market’s ability to realize the public’s needs and wants. Today’s well-capitalized Web3 initiatives are often funded by many of the same folks that lead the initial financialization of the web, such as Andreessen Horowitz. The people who lead the way to a broken internet are not the ones to fix it.
Tarnoff claims that the internet is broken because it is treated like a business; a more equitable, privacy-respecting internet will require provisions for substantive governance outside of commercial interests.“The root is simple: the internet is broken because the internet is a business.” (Tarnoff 11)
But what exactly is broken? Consider internet access in the United States. The last place I lived in New York City offered me the choice of two providers. When I lived in Peoria, Illinois in the 1990sFurther, there were also public options. I was quite fond of dialing into the Heartland Freenet, “a community owned and operated not for profit bulletin board system […] modeled after public television and public radio.” It had a free internet connection at 22.214.171.124 by way of Bradley University, according to the New York Times. The article published on August 4, 1994 notes that the service required “$45,000 a year to keep its connection open for the 1,400 people a day who sign on.”
I had at least 4 times as many choices.“[In 1998] 92 percent of Americans had the choice of seven or more ISPs simply by using a modem over their phone line. But in the aftermath of a 2005 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the Bush-era deregulations, the big ISPs began refusing their competitors access to their infrastructure.” (Tarnoff 35)
The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce promised that “expanded services” and “lower prices” would arise from “a market-driven arena, not in an environment that operates as a regulated industry.” Well it didn’t happen in New York City or anywhere else in the United States. Average internet costs are high and speeds are slow when compared to Europe and Asia. Further, folks in the United States are more dissatisfied with their internet service providers than the much maligned airline companies and the byzantine health insurers.(Tarnoff 36)
While the rest of the world doesn’t need to worry about the United States’ access problems, they are indicative of what’s wrong further up the stack at the application layer. Applications built by Amazon, Facebook, and Google present immediate global concerns.
It will take years to understand the deepening ties between commerce and information systems. Early studies and anecdotal evidence suggest everything from a confidence crisis in teenage girls to threats to the foundations of democracy.
I am not prepared to blame social ills on a shifting media landscape. In Kenneth Goldsmith’s love letter to the World Wide Web, Wasting Time on the Internet, he observes folks with a rich online social life, people deeply engaged with the written word, and children who love both video gaming and playing in the park.A 2022 study by Pew Research Center demonstrates the more nuanced/positive effects of social media: “Majorities of teens credit social media with strengthening their friendships and providing support while also noting the emotionally charged side of these platforms.”
Media theorists like Marshall McLuhan observed endless cycles of new media displacement; those who swim in old media reflexively deride the perceived effects of new media.
What remains explicitly clear is the fact that folks are not gathering in the digital equivalent of parks and town squares, they are gathering in online centers of commerce. Our digital public spaces, often called “platforms,” are really purpose-built shopping malls. This distinction is where Tarnoff’s book shines.
These so-called platforms are engineered to drive purchases. We have no right to contract when we enter. Their terms exchange our privacy and sovereignty for their service. Those who disagree will find it hard to have a private conversation elsewhere if the world’s eMails (think Gmail), phone calls (think Skype), and texts (think WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger) run through their shopping mall. The explicit trade-off is our data and it’s impossible for better terms to arise in this arrangement.This is the completely predictable outcome of Clinton’s policies. Tarnoff cites activist Jeffrey Chester warning of “a virtual electronic shopping mall” overtaking the public internet as far back as 1993.
Concerns about the shift from interoperable public spaces to siloed corporate spaces can be observed in online art from the turn of the millennium. Galley 404, my online gallery dedicated to preserving broken digital artworks, features two such pieces. Toywar
(1999) is a type of digital performance art that centers on a true-life domain name battle between the etoy.CORPORATION (an artist collective, incorporated in 1994) and eToys Inc. (one of the biggest e-commerce companies, incorporated 1996). Airworld (1999) was an advertising-fueled art website that pulled in corporate content from around the internet. Both pieces blurred the line between autonomous expression and corporate control. They are evidence that a different internet once existed and proof-positive that a different internet can once more emerge.
Tomorrow’s Egalitarian Internet
Salomé Viljoen was the first person I read to assert this continuum of data from “person-like” to “object-like.”“A Relational Theory of Data Governance” Yale Law Journal (2021)
The former asserts that data is an extension of the self and should be protected by inalienable human rights, like Stefano Rodotà.Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU states that “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected”.
The later asserts that data that we produce - whether as a byproduct of our labor or our biology - is something to own. As property, an owner should have the ability to control and trade this information. This is the market-based paradigm codified by Bill Clinton that drives our current, largely corporate internet.
Viljoen envisions a third axis that embraces all the messiness of democratic norms. She concedes the fact that data is more useful in aggregate. Therefore a data commons controlled by the people can be preferable to tidy corporate shopping malls.
There are no technical barriers towards implementing such governance. The internet was a public innovation co-opted by private interests with the aid of policymakers in Washington D.C. Establishing a public commons won’t eliminate advertising and commerce. But a counter-balance is requisite for a balanced ecosystem that serves a diverse set of needs.