The internet started as a new kind of civic space, built at universities and subsidized with public dollars, with a simple set of rules for connecting. Because it was open and free, this “network of networks” toppled commercial digital communications platforms like AOL and Compuserve. Its openness and access also enabled new kinds of civic action: finding other like-minded people and banding together. The basic building block of all civic power became easier with the rise of the net.
As a result, about a decade ago, we experienced something of a civic renaissance. Tens of millions of people went online to “join the conversation” by starting their own blogs, or reading and commenting on others. Millions were getting involved more directly in politics, causing the number of small donations to candidates to swell sevenfold between 2000 and 2004. Thus, it’s understandable that PACE’s 2014 Infogagement report spoke of public life becoming “like a Jackson Pollock painting,” and concerned itself with “how to bring ‘new voices’ — meaning young people, poor people, recent immigrants, and people of color — into the public square.”
Today, these efforts have all gone sour. While more Americans are online than ever, the online public sphere has turned toxic. Facebook and YouTube, the two biggest platforms for public conversation, according to the Pew Research Center, are driven by algorithms that reward emotional engagement above all else, thus fostering filter bubbles, political polarization, and the dangerous spread of misinformation.
What went wrong? Nearly the entire internet is based on the following trade: you give us intimate personal data, and we give you magical services for free. This is the original sin, and almost every major website you visit (except Wikipedia and Craigslist) commits it. If you aren’t paying for something online, that’s because you are the product being sold. The platforms that figured out how to grow the largest and the fastest have won the battle for advertising income, which is why Wall Street now values Google and Facebook at about half a trillion dollars each.
But hyper-fast growth came with a severe price: the elimination of many forms of human judgment that, while expensive and slow, foster the creation of genuine community. Genuine interactions that might determine whether a user is authentic or a post is toxic, or whether a comment thread needs to be mediated before it flames up, are all decisions humans make more effectively than computers. However, the allure of internet giants like Google and Facebook to investors is that they have scaled to billions of users without having to hire hundreds of thousands of workers — this discernment is not powered by human intuition; it’s automated.
We didn’t have to go down this path, since the early internet was entirely non-commercial. But the Clinton administration made a key decision early on to privatize its infrastructure. Former Vice President Al Gore posited that the net would not become a new public good like a park or school. “Unlike the interstates, the information highways will be built, paid for and funded principally by the private sector,” he said in 1993.
Instead of building public spaces online where all are equally free to participate without fear of being tracked or harassed and basic norms of civility are protected, our leaders did nothing to prevent the private sector from colonizing the digital public square.
Now, because of this failure of imagination, most citizens live a large part of their civic lives inside a new country called Facebookistan, ruled by a well-intentioned but highly insulated CEO who naively thinks that 2.2 billion people can be one “community” and that artificial intelligence systems will be able tamp down the negative effects of addicting people to his service. Even if you aren’t a Facebook user (and 2/3 of Americans are), you are still affected by Facebook. It’s like Jupiter’s effect on the other planets in the solar system — it’s so big it distorts everything around it. Our social networks are skewed by it. Our news is skewed by it. Our emotions are skewed by it. Our elections can be skewed by it.
The same goes for the other major platforms for public discourse. One-sixth of Twitter’s user base is suspected to be bots — fake accounts — but the company won’t tamp down on them because it needs investors to believe its user base is growing. YouTube’s recommendation engine pushes people towards more extreme content, not because the company wants to foster extremism, but because such content is “highly engaging” and keeps users on the platform where advertisers can get to them.
Public life cannot be built on private servers. It’s that simple.
On such a foundation, no meaningful civic sphere can thrive. Public life cannot be built on private servers. It’s that simple. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple — the four big tech companies who now own and maintain the platforms and set the rules for how users interact and how content is amplified — are publicly-traded corporations answerable to their shareholders, not the public interest. In order for digital public squares to truly be open and welcoming to all, built to support a healthier democracy, it must be built and run on public foundations.
Such a prospect may seem like a fantasy now. But it’s no harder than imagining building a system of public libraries open to all, or a system of public roads open to all. We ought to be able to navigate our online lives the same way we manage offline, with an online address obtained from a public authority, and our data held for us in public trusts. In order to realize such a vision, we will have to remember what it means to be a citizen, and to insist that as citizens of cyberspace, we have the right to civil discourse online.
Micah L. Sifry is Co-Founder of Civic Hall. He also curates the annual Personal Democracy Forum, and also is the editor of Civicist, Civic Hall’s news site. From 2006–16 he was a senior adviser to the Sunlight Foundation, which he helped found, and currently serves on the boards of Consumer Reports and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. He is the author or editor of nine books, most recently Civic Tech in the Global South (co-edited with Tiago Peixoto) (World Bank, 2017); A Lever and a Place to Stand: How Civic Tech Can Move the World (PDM Books, 2015), with Jessica McKenzie; The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) (OR Books, 2014); and Wikileaks and the Age of the Transparency (OR Books, 2011). In 2012 he taught “The Politics of the Internet” as a visiting lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School. From 1997–2006, he worked closely with Public Campaign, a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on comprehensive campaign finance reform, as its senior analyst. Prior to that, Micah was an editor and writer with The Nation magazine for thirteen years.