Why Free Speech Doesn’t Make the Internet Free, Open, or Global
The world seems strangely and wonderfully quiet right now, doesn’t it? It’s the first time I’ve felt like I had a little mental breathing room in the past four years. What’s going on?
Oh…right. Trump has been banned from Twitter.
Of course, there’s a noisy response to this — pushback and debates about whether or not this was the right decision. (And thankfully so. We should have careful conversations about communication platforms and people’s right to use them.)
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, is even debating himself, it would appear — hypothetically, at least. He put the question out there: “Is this correct?”
He goes on to talk about his dream of what he — and many — believe the internet ought to be: Decentralized. Free. Open. Global.
Those who disagree with Dorsey’s decision to shut off Trump’s mic nevertheless seem to applaud his vision of the free, open global internet and share his worry that any censorship will erode that foundation.
The problem is, it isn’t decentralized, free, or open. It never has been. And it has yet to head in that direction.
And no one seems to want to talk about that.
The ISP Monopoly
I pay $70 a month (with a $2 increase every 18 months) for my internet service. This seems outrageous to me, especially considering the fact that it’s not high-speed, it often sputters, and it regularly goes offline for hours or even a day at a time — and I never see a discount on my bill for those unexpected outages. And don’t even get me started on the horrific customer service.
Why do I put up with it? It is literally the only internet company that serves my city. The only other one in a 100-mile radius has its own territory.
I am not alone in this. Many Americans are dealing with subpar internet service — and paying a hefty price for it.
The reason behind this is simple: lack of market regulation. America loves its monopolies and oligopolies. Our laws say we don’t, but our actions say otherwise. As journalist Emily Stewart (who has the same problem with her internet bill as I do) writes,
“The government is supposed to use antitrust law to ensure competition and stop companies from becoming so big that they push everyone else out. Basically, antitrust is supposed to prevent anticompetitive monopolies. In the US in recent decades, regulators, enforcers, and the courts have taken a laxer attitude toward antitrust, which has resulted in more mergers, or companies growing to the point that it’s hard for rivals to stay in the game.”
And that includes internet service providers (ISPs).
As Stewart points out, some companies, like these, cannot help but become a “natural monopoly” due to “infrastructure costs and other barriers to entry [that] give early entrants a significant advantage.”
“In the US, however, just a few big companies, often without overlap, control much of the telecom industry, and the result is high prices and uneven connectivity.
…multiple states … have put up roadblocks to municipal broadband to keep cities from providing alternatives to and competing with local entities. It’s an example of lobbying at its finest, so that powerful corporations can keep competitors out and charge whatever they want.”
We don’t question this in America. We stay on Facebook, even in light of our own moral uncertainty about using the platform because there is no other option. We keep giving our money to billion-dollar beast Amazon even though we know they’ve deliberately (and without consequence) smashed their competitors because honestly, it’s just easier to tell Alexa to send us another order of printer ink or a box of protein bars.
Because of our internet service provider oligopolies and a general lack of regulation over these industries, Americans pay two to three times more for internet services than most other industrialized nations — and for lower quality services.
Forty-two million Americans don’t have access to internet service in their homes. A 2019 PEW study suggests that 50% of Americans who don’t have internet service don’t have it because they cannot afford it — and at an average cost of $60–70 per month, it’s no wonder.
That’s a lot of Americans who aren’t able to participate in the “free, open, global internet” — and while many are rallying to preserve the rights of American politicians’ free speech, no one is doing anything to make sure every single citizen has fair access to the internet.
The “Digital Divide”
It must be noted that the economic issues that create barriers to internet access disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic Americans. A recent study, focusing on school-aged children, by Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that:
“African American children and youth [are] eight percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet and four percent more likely to have no internet access. …Even in areas where a greater number of people have access to the internet overall, the gap [is] ‘persistent’ for children and youth who are African American, Latinx, low income, participate in English as Second Language programs, and/or lack adequate housing.”
In 2016, Free Press released a study called Digital Denied, that outlined stark racial inequalities when it comes to accessing technology — an issue born not just from economic inequality but from systemic racial discrimination.
The problem here is nuanced and multi-layered. For instance, the fact that low-income families of color are more likely to lack access to the internet doesn’t mean as much without the additional acknowledgement of the fact that BIPOC are subjected to income inequality, earning far less than their white colleagues.
Further, evidence is emerging (unsurprisingly) that recent studies on internet access are not only failing to conduct rigorous examinations and analyses of racial inequalities but that our government agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, are refusing to look at data (or even collect it), or acknowledge the blatant violations of subsidized agreements with ISPs that would solve the digital divide, supposedly one of the FCC’s “top priorities.”
According to Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press:
“There are racist and classist implications to arguing that those who don’t have broadband just ‘don’t get it.’ Low-income families and people of color are disproportionately less likely to have home broadband, and this country has a long history of blaming systemic racial and economic inequities on the marginalized folks who suffer under them.”
She goes on to say that the FCC’s and other agencies’ refusal to take appropriate action is “symptomatic of a longstanding effort to marginalize low income and minority communities.”
Even for BIPOC whose access to the internet was not impeded by these factors, their entire user experience is influenced by racist algorithms. Studies have shown that artificial intelligence sorting through data on the internet causes it to learn “prejudices against Black people and women.” Hospital software has been found to discriminate against Black people. And Instagram and Facebook have admitted to racial biases in their algorithms that have made it 50% more likely for a Black person’s account to be suspended.
Whether from the outside, or in, the internet experience for BIPOC is not free or open.
Lack of global accessibility
Americans love to spin romantic stories about the internet’s ability to connect people across the globe and build an unprecedented community and economy that includes every continent. But the truth is, the internet is far from “global.”
For one thing, it represents a major language barrier for many. Eighty-nine percent of it is recorded in just 10 languages, with a whopping 56% of it written in English. To put that into perspective, there are approximately 6,000 living languages in use today and estimates claim that, in order to be truly globally accessible to the rest of the world, the internet would have to accommodate no less than 800 languages — a far cry from today’s 10.
However, that is merely one issue out of many. The internet is also inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population (recent estimates suggest 4.1 billion) due to issues including, but not limited to, economic barriers, illiteracy, lack of knowledge about what the internet is, and lack of access to technology and/or service providers.
And the next generation, the youth of the world whose lives will arguably be more dependent upon technology and the internet than any generation that has come before, are still severely lacking in access to the internet — 29% are not online.
The internet has a long way to go before we can call it “global.”
The infrastructure issue
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the very infrastructure of the internet was created by white, American men. It was pioneered by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf. It is comprised of software, services, designs, and systems created almost exclusively by white, American men: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Apple…
This means that the internet experience is what has been created for us by white, American men. If that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, consider the words of Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist:
“Never before in history have 50 designers, 20- to 35-year-old white guys in California, made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.* Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have, because a designer at Google said, ‘This is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning.’”
The implications of that — something we as a global society have never addressed — are staggering.
*Two billion is a general estimate of the amount of regularly active internet users across the globe.
It’s important and appropriate that we’re having some intense debates about internet regulation and how we want to envision cyberspace for future generations. However, the assertion that the internet is currently a free, open, global space is dangerous — because it’s not, at all, and trying to suggest otherwise only edifies our complacency about the very real lack of access that far too many people have.
The internet is, in fact, free, open, and (semi) global for English-speaking white people in industrialized nations within a certain income bracket — and most especially for the men among that demographic. Everyone else, however, is not having such an easy time getting in the door.
Perhaps this issue deserves our attention a lot more than whether or not a rich white man was suspended from Twitter if we indeed want to protect this free, open, global internet of our aspirations.
© Yael Wolfe 2021
More on our cherished, but unrealized dreams of freedom:
Free Speech Is America’s Achilles Heel
Misunderstood, misused, and destined to be our undoing