Late last year, Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared before Congress to explain how a foreign government that targeted democratic institutions in the United States subverted their services. For months, the companies denied wrongdoing, hid behind spurious legal claims, and acted genuinely surprised that anyone would question their technical competence.
Of course, now we know that Facebook sold advertising to Russian troll farms working to undermine the American political process. As one employee of the Russian Internet Research Agency (whose workers are known in Russian slang as kremlebots) put it plainly, “Our goal was…to make Americans hate their own government. To sow disorder, dissatisfaction, to lower Obama’s approval.”
This is not the Internet we imagined 25 years ago when we worked to promote it and to strengthen democratic institutions and values. As young policy wonks in D.C.—one working for Clinton-Gore, the other urging NGOs to engage tech policy—we listened to tech innovators and leaders for social justice. We spoke with many who believed that the Internet could be a force for good. We were inspired. And we wrote policy frameworks that helped shape the growth of the Internet.
We still believe in those visions, but as we look back over those years, we see how many who inspired us in the early days decided to head off in a different direction. Washington NGOs turned into focus groups and trade associations for tech firms. Progressive leaders moved away from progressive values on tech issues, and now we live with the consequences.
What precisely happened?
Progressives gave up on democratic institutions and the rule of law. Progressives are not afraid to use the power of government to make our society fairer and more just. But when it came to the Internet firms, a new mantra of “multistakeholder engagement” took hold. Internet firms received special dispensation from legal compliance, such as disclosing political advertising sources. Companies that should have been the subject of government scrutiny instead created their own self-regulatory processes for resolving real problems like governance, privacy, and consumer protection. The fox didn’t just guard the henhouse—it designed it and wired it to the Internet with 24-7 surveillance. The chickens never had a chance.
The First Amendment was repurposed to block regulation. An odd policy inversion took hold in the progressive world. At the same time that progressive leaders were rethinking fundamental principles of free expression on college campuses, they were doubling down on First Amendment rights for large corporations. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act enacted by Congress in 1996, long before the rise of massive platform monopolies, was elevated from an early attempt to clarify case law to an armor-plated get-out-of-jail-free card for corporate behavior that should have triggered oversight and liability, such as facilitating online sex trafficking. The same groups that railed against the Citizens United decision for unleashing corporate power grew silent when the debate turned to immunity for Internet firms.
Race and gender were trivialized and tokenized. Instead of addressing the very real impact that the high-tech economy was having on middle-class jobs, communities of color, and unions, progressive leaders chose instead to organize big-dollar parties with tech firm money for thought leaders to project solidarity on the right causes, without making actual commitments on the real issues. So labor forces and boardrooms in Silicon Valley remained among the most segregated in America, even as handpicked spokespeople were out in the media backing politically popular social causes. This was neither helpful nor authentic.
Progressives ignored newly emerging media monopolies. Many of the consumer advocates who provided human shields for the Internet firms grew up in an era when the enemies were the telephone companies and the cable companies. Genuine problems remain in those industries, but the ability of those consumer advocates to raise the same concerns in regard to emerging tech competitors never materialized. And so the Federal Communications Commission privacy rules tied knots around Google’s competitors but left Google free of the Commission’s regulatory reach. Even the famed “network neutrality” principle imposed regulatory constraints only on carriers, not on Internet gatekeepers. Meanwhile, the Internet giants gobbled up large pieces of the online world with mergers and acquisitions, with barely a word spoken from those who rushed to the barricades when traditional companies, such as Time Warner and AT&T, were heading toward merger.
Progressive organizations gave up their identities. Literally. One of the most troubling but also emblematic examples of the collapse of progressive tech policy is the decision of many organizations to turn over their mailing lists and their members, their documents, even their names to Google and Facebook. NGOs that once proudly displayed websites and “.org” domain names collapsed into googlegroups.com, adopted Gmail addresses, and floundered as groups on Facebook, even after the company dismantled principles for democratic decision-making. And universities that spent centuries accumulating knowledge digitized their libraries and then turned over their intellectual assets to Google, even as tech was making it easier than ever for universities to manage their own digital resources.
The promise of the Internet—one that gave every organization the ability to shape its own destiny in the digital world—is rapidly receding. Without access to cloud servers managed by large Internet companies, many organizations would simply disappear. Even domain names—among the most cost-effective ways to establish an online presence—have been cast aside as organizations sharecrop a little bit of online space at facebook.com or googlegroups.com.
And so now advocates of net neutrality look around and wonder why there is such a backlash to a tech future that is increasingly beyond the meaningful engagement of most people. A quick recap of the past 25 years helps provide the answer.
We will continue to fight for the Internet we once believed in, the Internet we helped promote, and the Internet that still can be. It is one that encourages innovation and progress. It is also an Internet built on democratic institutions and the rule of law and that respects fundamental rights, including privacy, fairness, and equity—progressive values that should shape tech policy.
You can find our policy frameworks online, written at the dawn of the public Internet, and judge for yourself (see below for citations). It will take the commitment of progressive leaders to step back from their current campaigns and their various entanglements and ask hard questions about whether the Internet is heading in a direction that supports democratic values and social justice. For us, it is no longer possible to ignore that question.
Marc Rotenberg founded the Public Interest Computer Association in 1983, helped establish Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C., and later launched the .org domain. Larry Irving served as an assistant secretary of commerce and was a principal Internet policy adviser to the Clinton-Gore administration. Both were principal authors of widely read policy papers in 1993 about the future of the Internet.
Citations for policy papers written by Marc Rotenberg and Larry Irving:
1. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, “Serving the Community: A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure,” (1993), https://cpsr.org/prevsite/cpsr/nii_policy.html/.
2. The National Information Infrastructure, “Agenda for Action,” (1993), https://clintonwhitehouse6.archives.gov/1993/09/1993-09-15-the-national-information-infrastructure-agenda-for-action.html.