Another Internet is Possible

Summer 2021 #34
written by
Kelly Bewers
illustration by
Seb Westcott
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Our experience of the internet is not neutral. Data is not neutral. Technology is not neutral. Our online spaces mirror and replicate the same orthodoxies that shape our political, economic, and social systems – individual ownership, centralised power, extraction, and control. 

But this narrative – that depicts ‘big tech’ as evil and mourns the inevitability of the increasingly digitised human – overlooks the subversive, activist, and democratic history of the internet. Its heritage reflects a progressive, open, and collective approach to organising and knowledge sharing that has been co-opted by a Silicon Valley-dominated innovation paradigm that seeks to own the future of the internet, without respecting its past. 

If digital platforms underpin our new social infrastructure, how can we occupy them differently? This article will unpick the myths surrounding the internet, explore the role of digital and data justice practice, and advocate for ethical technology stewardship. 

The end of tech for good 

Many of the technologists who helped lay the foundations of the internet as we know it were interested in the positive transformational impact of networked technology. Tim Berners- Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, said: “The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.” The very idea of ‘tech for good’ would have seemed like an unnecessary truism to these early pioneers. 

Even the most genuine and authentic ‘tech for good’ projects are embedded in our existing economic system. As such, they replicate the same modes of thinking and are limited in their capacity to truly address the deep structural issues they aim to tackle. For example, the current fixation with GDPR compliance (what data are we collecting about this individual?) is a microcosm of a much wider and more harmful system which trades data for profit. Until we break down this deep technology orthodoxy of the modern internet, solutions to address privacy, access, and digital rights will always be limited. 

Any meaningful interrogation of how the internet shapes our society today requires us to ask who should have the power to build for whom and how we might manage global digital systems with equitable and independent governance. Economist Mariana Mazzucatto argues that: “Changing the value of data means changing the fundamental structure and direction of the digital economy, changing what kind of data is worth collecting and whether to collect it at all.”

The campaign for consentful tech

The Consentful Tech Project and many other similar initiatives are asking us to consider the idea of consent beyond our physical bodies. We have digital bodies, made up of pieces of personal data which exist in relationship with others, can participate in communities, and can also experience harm. Our digital bodies are scattered across the databases, servers, and platforms that make up the internet and are controlled by the environments that host them. How might we create another internet where these digital bodies have more autonomy? 

Although the harm to them might not be physical, our digital bodies are frequently acted upon in non-consensual ways. For example, apps like Uber tracking our location even when we are not using them, the often unchecked threats of sexual assault in digital spaces like Twitter, and private information such as biometric data being shared across government databases (which particularly impacts people with disabilities, immigrants, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). 

The project defines ‘consentful technologies’ as “applications and spaces in which consent underlies all aspects, from the way they are developed, to how data is stored and accessed, to the way interactions happen between users.” Could we imagine a ‘neighbourhood watch’ for the internet? 

Our digital bodies interact with each other, intermediated by the servers they inhabit. Currently all the control is in the environment, and the data that makes up our digital bodies is passive and lacks agency. By binding that data into a cell with its own logic, protected by encryption, we could restore autonomy to our digital bodies, allowing interactions to involve us instead of acting upon us.

Digital design justice

New York based New Public, an initiative by Civil Signals, asserts that the digital industry breaks down into three types: the physical digital infrastructure – the fibre and wires; the technical digital infrastructure – the code and the data that allows an online space to exist; and the social digital infrastructure – the norms, rules, and unwritten codes of conduct around it. How can we make these spaces accessible? Do certain platforms create different areas of equity, power, and inclusion? Do people choose not to participate in certain spaces? 

Design justice is an approach to design that is rooted in equity and community. The Design Justice Network is “striving to create design practices that centre those who stand to be most adversely impacted by design decisions in design processes.” Design processes that are led by and centred around people who can be unjustly impacted by technology are a cornerstone of consentful tech. Digital justice, according to the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, is a fundamental human right that promotes “access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities.”

Online solidarity and counterculture

If we are to reimagine the internet as public commons – a digital space for collective and open networking – then we need to claim ownership of the imaginative and creative processes that underpin the internet, and reject and then rebuild them. And it’s possible – protesters have won cases to ban the use of facial recognition technology in the US, students in the UK successfully sued the government for using racist software that determined academic performance during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in Toronto the Block the Sidewalk campaign forced Google to abandon its plan to develop a ‘smart’ surveillant city.

What would a community accountability approach to digital communities look like? How would it work for both people who are users of the technology in question, as well as people who might be impacted by it? How could this change the way that the creators of algorithms are held accountable for the harms that their biases cause? 

Today, during a moment in which we all have been cut off from public and physical space, many of us are just starting to grasp what these activists have long understood: resilience is built on trust, and trust is dependent on shared experience and mutual vulnerability. These values were not built into the original infrastructure of the internet, which prioritised anonymity. We cannot swipe our way to solidarity or tweet our way to trust. Digital intimacy is possible, but, as in real life, it must be deliberately created and nurtured. 

What then, does it mean to cultivate intimacy online? How do we grow a movement across digital borders? It might feel futile to imagine how the internet – a space that now seems to capitalise on and profit from individual expression and political conflict of its users – could be occupied by a counter- hegemonic culture.

Alternative digital futures

The challenge for building a better digital future is that it requires a choice – to resist, dissent, create, connect – and it’s one we need to collectively take. Our lives are defined by platforms that shape the way we behave and interact with information, ideas, and each other, so the concept that we can decide to do things differently is powerful. Rachel Coldicutt, founding CEO of responsible tech think tank Doteveryone, wrote a brilliant blog post ‘Delinquent Telephone Activity’ which asks us to occupy the internet with love.

Recognising how hard it is to get people to rebel against something they can’t see (big tech), she instead recommends that we take a more playful approach to how we experiment and use technology. 

The most urgent question for shaping an alternative internet future is not how technology will change, but how that process of change will be managed and importantly how the people who occupy it will behave and interact with platforms to shape them. The early days of the internet were shaped by a culture of hackers, engineers, and visionaries, many of them women, whose contribution, as set out in Claire L Evans’ brilliant book Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet (2020), has largely been excluded from history until recently. 

In a paper – A brief history of the internet (Barry M. Leiner et al., 2009) – the authors argue that “if the internet stumbles, it will not be because we lack the technology, vision, or motivation. It will be because we cannot set a direction and march collectively into the future.” 

Right now large technology giants control the direction of the internet and have created a narrative of inevitability and determinism about its future, but another internet is possible. We can see it emerging through the ethical approaches to technology design and development being championed by co-operative social tech movements; projects and campaigns that advocate for a new language and narrative about our digital rights and individual agency; and, most importantly, a collective and open approach to experimenting with new platforms and organising in digital spaces and playgrounds.

Kelly is a consultant working with organisations that are designing more equitable systems of social & economic justice. She is also the co-founder of Impact Edit, which develops affordable digital platforms and builds technology stewardship & data justice with the social impact sector.

Summer 2021 #34
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