The Future of the Internet Might Hinge on This Bet


Some big non-profit foundations are joining forces to address some scary aspects of the Net. They just might make a difference

Humans are driven by metaphors. We can’t help it. “Internet access is like electricity,” we say, and that leads to a host of other mental images: standard plugs for a wealth of devices, warm light against a dark frozen landscape, the burdens of life made more bearable. The warring metaphor now is “the Internet is the new TV,” thoroughly managed, channelized, bent on entertainment, ad-driven, interactive only when it suits someone’s business plan. Both of these metaphors are limited and not quite right. That’s the way metaphors work.

But we are in fact ants on a wrinkle of history, trundling across a vast transforming landscape that we can’t see on our own.

We’re in an important moment at the beginning of the beginning of the Internet. The opportunities presented by a phase change in informational capacity — what’s possible with fiber optic lines — and inclusive, ubiquitous connectivity are dazzling: genuine presence in other peoples’ lives, an additional layer to existence that augments and deepens human capacity for compassion and connection, a rich addition to sight. Think avatars, holodecks, and interactivity across every surface, and then multiply.

At the same time, the challenges are extraordinary. What if the Internet really is the new TV, and that TV is watching us? Who gets to decide which thickets of sensors are glued to everything we touch or wander by, and how that data is used? How high will we allow gatekeepers selling Internet access to raise the barriers of entry to new ideas and new ways of making a living? If increased connection indeed generates life-changing opportunities, will these be available to everyone? (This last one seems to me the biggest challenge of all; we are genuinely at risk of creating two Americas, one that exults in whatever we end up calling the Internet of things, and another that remains on a non-interactive plane.)

We’re not only going to need better metaphors, but we’re also going to require some serious work on making real life live up to them. “Electricity” doesn’t capture interactivity or interoperability in anything other than the crudest form. Nor does it give us a way of talking about crucial differences in capacity across socio-economic lines or the two-way mirror of data use. And whatever form of words we chose for future tussles won’t be enough to do the job: we need concerted, intentional, sustained work at every level of civic engagement in order to make the vision of a high-capacity, open, ubiquitous, digital layer of life a reality. This work is hard, it’s expensive, and it’s desperately needed right now. There isn’t quite a vacuum, but we’re close. There are many gaps to fill.

This week marks a milestone in the work going on in America on the Internet policy gap-filling front. A large group of crucial U.S. foundations is committing to work together on these issues: The presidents of the Knight, Ford, Mozilla, MacArthur and Open Society foundations gathered in New York City to face up to the sobering realities of this moment in the history of the Internet in America.

The five foundations are pledging new commitments — in addition to the cumulative $50 million they spend annually in this area — to support novel ideas and finance new research. President of the Open Society Foundations Chris Stone says that the initiative will lead to a “richer conversation,” a faster pace of spending, a greater commitment of money, and a recognition that these issues “cut across everything we do.” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker says Ford will be devoting additional staff to Internet-related issues and evangelizing the importance of Internet policy to the entire philanthropic sector. Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker said this commitment will be aimed at creating a deeper connection between the foundations on the things that are possible to do.

The money hasn’t been earmarked for any particular project; the ​initiative launched the “NetGain Challenges,” which invites experts from the sector and members of the public to ​identify the ​biggest challenge​s ​philanthropy ought to fund.

Submissions so far give a sense of the types of initiatives and ideas that the foundations are considering funding. They include initiatives to persuade those newly rich from technological advances to invest some of ​that money back in​to​ digitally inspired social change agents and platforms. ​The foundations are being asked to focus on protecting civil liberties, guaranteeing net neutrality, ​and​ investing in a hypothetical Association of Internet Users to be a ground-up public policy voice on U.S. Internet issues​.

​This is a big deal. Just as a practical matter, the severity of the risks the country faces right now on this front seems to have pulled philanthropists out of the silos of their respective foundations and into hard-headed collective work. Dabbling in shiny one-off programs driven by individual program officers won’t be enough to ensure digital inclusion, fight off gatekeeper control by enormous, conflict-ridden ISPs, or set a solid table for future Internet policy, and the foundations know it.

Every other area of interest each of these foundations focuses on — from education reform to health policy to addressing climate change to criminal justice — depends on getting this digital substrate right. (Another metaphor: Internet access is a highway, a sidewalk, a neutral layer beneath absolutely everything we do.) Philanthropy can play a crucial role by building capacity in a wealth of sectors, including inside government, to think long term.

Here’s a metaphor that fits this moment: we are in a battle for the future of the Internet. The foundations are mobilizing, calling in the troops, and planning to work on the front lines. It’s an effort that is remarkable in its scope. Let’s hope it’s both sustained and ultimately successful.

Follow Backchannel: Twitter | Facebook