Internet for the People Chapter 4 Summary

  • Tarnoff claims that a powerful popular movement, demanding that the internet be allocated a public highway, was not present during the 90s. Ideas were there but not power: “namely, masses of people willing to take disruptive action to overcome the opposition of industry and its faithful representatives in government.”
  • Movements are built on informal conservations that ask questions like “what are the problems?” and “what is needed to solve them”. When it comes to deprivatising the internet, one question is necessary to answer: how will we fund the deprivatisation effort
  • Tarnoff points out that “the broadband cartel” receives numerous infusions of public cash, the rationale being that these firms will help expand internet access.
  • Tarnoff believes that this is contradictory: the same firms responsible for internet inequity are the ones being paid to expand access.
  • “There are a number of federal programs, and various initiatives at the state and local levels, that provide corporate ISPs with billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives in the hopes of boosting broadband investment. Take the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. This fund is financed by a tax on telecommunications providers, which in practice amounts to a tax on consumers”
  • Tarnoff claims that these firms siphon off these funds for their interests: “During these years, CenturyLink’s CEO was one of the highest-paid executives in the industry, earning $35.7 million in 2018.”
  • If, after fixing the siphoning off described above, we need additional sources of revenue, we might adopt the following:

One idea would be to revive the differential fee structure proposed by the advocates of a “public lane” for the internet in the 1990s. Businesses would pay more for access, particularly businesses over a certain size; individuals would pay less, or nothing at all. Another approach would be to target large tech companies like Google and Facebook with a digital services tax on revenues from online advertising. This is an especially deep well to draw from: the combined revenue of Google and Facebook alone came to more than $230 billion in 2019, the majority from ads. The scholar David Elliot Berman proposes a third possibility: tax Comcast, Verizon, and the other members of the broadband cartel. ”

  • If community networks providing free (or nearly free) internet existed, these networks might put the broadband cartels out of business. This would be anti-competitive. Isn’t that bad? Tarnoff attempts to desconstruct the narrative that this would be bad.

This is only a single report, of course, but it illustrates a broader point: competition works best for customers who are worth competing for. Many people will remain “bad” customers no matter how much competition exists, because they’re too poor, or they live in places too remote, to be profitable. Moreover, improving service in such communities typically requires expensive infrastructure investments that won’t pay for themselves.

  • Competition may actually increase the likelihood that firms partake in predatory practices (i.e. surveilling you), in order to rescue the diminishing profit margins driven by competition.
  • Competition also won’t provide a means for consumers to directly enforce standards such as minimum speeds and reliability.
  • Spy machines: internet surveillance and repression are rampant, whether we mean the complete shutdown of internet services or we mean surveilling user behavior and internet access. Tarnoff argues that there is no reason to believe that either of a federally owned internet backbone, or a complete privatized one, would be more capable of surveillance. He suggests that not only must laws come into being but also governance customs must guarantee that non-officialdom members of a locale (e.g. a country) are consistently able to exercise direct influence on the terms of internet regulation. They can do so by being part of the institutions governing the internet.
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Here are some questions for our session:

  1. Internet oppression is rampant. Many governments (with the cooperation of firms) regularly stifle or outrightly shut down internet access.
    a. Please analyse (in an abstract sense) what processes* make this stifling possible.
    b. How could different manners of internet governance weaken these processes?
    c. If you are unable to adequately answer the previous question(s) what additional knowledge is necessary to answer them?

*For example, one process is inter-platform competition: because Twitter does not wish to lose ground to other social media platforms, it agrees to the Indian governments’ forceful removal of tweets by activists critical of the Indian government, out of fear that a refusal would lead the Indian government to bar Twitter.

  1. Please jog back your memory. What examples illustrate Tarnoff’s claim that (paraphrased) ‘The broadband cartel created Internet inequity’? What would the firms constituting the ‘cartel’ say in response?

  2. Increasing internet access requires money. Tarnoff proposes multiple schemes to generate this money. All of them would likely be opposed by the powers that be (i.e. firms). What recourse is there – that generates money – and that evades the conflict?