Why We Need to Take Back the Internet from the Centralizers

In a world where digital technology reigns supreme, freedom of speech should not depend on the whims of a few powerful corporations and government rules. Increasingly, it does.

A delegation of right-wing activists will travel this week to Silicon Valley. They will be supplicants at the throne of Facebook, a platform so pervasive that it has unprecedented power to decide what’s news—a platform that could consume journalism itself in coming years. They will be begging Mark Zuckerberg for his indulgence. What they should be doing—what we all should be doing—is finding ways to reduce his company’s dominance.

The promise of the internet and personal technology was in its decentralization: one of the most profound advances for liberty in history. Yet at a rapid rate we’re seeing it re-centralized, as governments and corporations—often with users’ willing, if short-sighted, cooperation—are taking control in the center, creating choke points over what we say and how we can say it.

The Facebook situation is helping people, including journalists, see that these choke points are a threat to freedom of expression. For countless millions, Facebook is the new public square. But its terms of service override the First Amendment, as activists and others have discovered. To assemble and speak in the new public square, we need permission from its owner.

Facebook is only one of those choke points—telecoms, giant technology companies, payment systems, and, of course, governments are among the others. Freedom of expression is only one of the liberties at risk—if you’re being spied on, by companies and governments, your freedom to assemble in common cause is limited.

Progress itself is at stake. Because information is the core of invention in a world where software, microprocessors, and networks are becoming part of everything we touch, the freedom to innovate itself should not depend on the commercial and political wishes of powerful governments and corporations. Increasingly, it does.

One might argue that this is just how markets work: a normal re-centralization and rule-making after messy growth. I’d argue that it represents market failure, because monopolies and oligopolies are the enemy of innovation.

The centralized powers are not going to give up their growing control willingly. We have to take it back. But we need help.

We need help from government: policies that push competition, rather than encourage monopolies and cartels. Specifically, the antitrust authorities need to be looking hard—from appearances they’re not looking at all—at the owners of these choke points.

We also need help from foundations: philanthropic organizations that exist, in some key ways, to address market failures that threaten the common good. A few foundations have made tentative steps into this arena, but their efforts have been timid, at best.

They need to do more. I wish I could persuade them to see this as a disaster for our collective future. I wish they would get together and pool several billion dollars to support initiatives—including government policies—designed to help re-decentralize our technology and communications.

If they won’t step up, we need wealthy individuals who recognize the threats to speech, innovation, and liberty itself inherent in centralized control. Perhaps a few of the newly minted Silicon Valley billionaires—many of whom accumulated their wealth by being part of the re-centralization—could recognize what they’ve done and lead the way out of the situation they helped create.

We—you and I—are part of the solution, too. Unless we recognize what’s at stake, and think about changing our own habits, we’re part of the problem. Unless we advocate for liberty, we’re helping the control freaks win. We’ll need to do things individually, and as members of communities at all levels, to change the trajectory.

This truly is an emergency. Let’s hope it’s not too late to do something about it.

Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and writes widely on technology and media topics.