Public Interest Values Must Be the Foundation of a Better Internet

This month marks the anniversary of a series of coordinated protests that led to the withdrawal of two proposed laws in the United States Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). SOPA-PIPA showed the power of collective action, rooted in shared values, to shape the future of the internet. Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis describes how public interest values have shaped the internet so far, and how the public interest community must ensure they continue building a better internet for everyone.

As Public Knowledge begins its 21st year of public interest advocacy, the work of technology and media policy continues to be full of exciting innovation and challenging choices. Innovations in technology can be revolutionary, and revolutions are messy. The promise of these innovations can be enormous if our society accounts for the challenges, the messiness, they bring. Balancing the promise of innovation with accountability starts with agreement on values and vision for the technology’s future. Traditionally, the civil society community would do the hard work of forging these agreements and aligning behind them to shape policy.

In the early days of the internet, civil society groups were focused on realizing its democratizing potential. For the first time ever, we had a broad-based tool for many-to-many communications, allowing for community building and an explosion in the diversity of voices and stories that could reach the public. Policymakers, too, focused on the exciting potential of the internet, and hesitated to raise guardrails that might inhibit entrepreneurship. This early era of the internet brought so much innovation, but also brought us questions that we still wrestle with today. For example, how open do we want the internet architecture to be and what does that mean for rules that we place on the profit-driven companies (broadband providers) that provide this society-changing service? Would the users of the network get to determine what information they send or receive across it without gatekeepers? That is the network neutrality debate in a nutshell. Another question we still struggle with is how do we apply laws that limit sharing of information and creative works, like copyright law, in a medium that was built for massive sharing and interconnection of digital content? The most well known of these fights was the defeat of the disastrous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

These early-era fights of the internet and internet policy were organized around various core public interest values, including: openness, free expression, diversity of voices, access to information, healthy competition, and anti-gatekeeperism. These fights also often placed civil society groups in political alliance with emergent tech companies whose services provided spaces for internet users to create, share, and organize in line with the public interest vision of an open web. Social media platforms like Reddit, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter created places for community building and content sharing. Wikimedia grew as the internet’s crowdsourced encyclopedia and the Internet Archive as the web’s digital library. The battle over SOPA was a coming-out party for the power of internet users in Washington. The bill’s defeat demonstrated to civil society just how powerful the mobilization of average, individual technology users – the people – could be. 

In the decade since the SOPA fight, new issues have risen based on the development of new innovations in technology and the challenges that they create. While we still fight over network neutrality and how to share creative works online, technology has developed new tools for communicating and using data that we were only beginning to understand a decade ago. These challenges are clear, but the public is still struggling to organize around how to account for the mess that they bring to our society. 

For example:  

  • Social media has allowed the discrete communities of interests to organize and share their own stories, no matter how marginalized that community may be within society. A challenge: What happens when the trust and belonging of that community is manipulated to spread harmful lies, hate, and disinformation? 
  • Video sharing apps create spaces for creative people to share content and stories that never would have made network television, and make a living doing it. A challenge: Who is responsible for the standards of that content, which is often in real time and at extraordinary scale?
  • Online marketplaces bring products from the smallest town or company to a global marketplace. A challenge: In a world of infinite products but limited space for promotion, what limits should be placed on the marketplace that controls that promotional space…and may compete within it?
  • Virtual reality spaces and metaverses can innovate and change where and how recreation, employment, and other realms of everyday life take place. A challenge: Will we as a society be content when the inequities and problems of our society (e.g. technology accessibility, scarcity-derived poverty, racial bias or hatred) take root in this new virtual world? Who is responsible for policing those virtual societal harms?
  • All of these technologies, many of which are free of monetary cost to users, are driven by data collection to drive both the computing power of the platforms (algorithms) and the dominant business model (advertising). A challenge: What are the limits of personal privacy in a world when intimate details of health, identity, and taste can be tracked, often without that person’s informed consent?

Questions like these (and they can seem to be endless), asked about innovative technology online, have been interpreted by some to represent a “tech lash.”  But that perspective is beholden to a pre-SOPA view of policymaking focused on  the powerful business interests that dominate media and politics. The challenges of the early internet era were not tackled by clashing industry players but by a public who understood what it wanted the internet to look like, and then fought for it. Civil society’s role was crafting a vision rooted in the values of what we want out of the internet. That vision framed policy debates and drove engagement by average tech users. This can and should be our role again with the current challenges innovation has created.

This is an important leadership moment for the civil society community. But we will not realize it if we continue to focus only on what we are against in the internet of today. When we talk about what we envision instead of what we are against, we can establish a shared picture to be measured against both existing and emerging technology in the future. We as a society, not one company or a group of companies, built the internet we have today. We can reshape it so that we actually benefit from it. We also have to be responsible for the messy challenges it can create. To accomplish this, the civil society community must engage with each other and with the public to define the public interest values that frame what a better internet looks like. 

Thankfully, we can identify those values today due to the foundational work of the past two eras of internet innovation and policy. Certainly we should not leave behind the positive vision of the early utopian era of internet history. But neither should we abandon the public interest values driving the more recent “tech lash” or accountability era of internet history. They can and should be balanced with each other for the benefit of the greater society.

People certainly will have their own list of values, but based on the work of Public Knowledge and the civil society allies we often work with, I suggest this starter list:

  • Openness and access to information
  • Democratic governance and multistakeholderism
  • Racial justice and diversity of voices
  • Free expression
  • Healthy competition and consumer choice
  • Content moderation for thriving communities
  • Privacy and user control over personal data

This list is not exhaustive – and that is part of the opportunity in front of our civil society community. Technology is being integrated into so many parts of our lives that the list of concerns and challenges created by innovation continues to grow. Civil society groups are growing and multiplying to match this growth in innovation, but we must align on our goals – even if not always their tactics – in order to fully realize the opportunity to build a better internet.

I recognize there are pitfalls to using public interest values to drive the development of internet technology and the policies that shape it. However, the alternative is an internet based on the profit motives of industry players alone. That is not a satisfactory alternative, so let’s work to identify the pitfalls before we step in them. 

One potential pitfall is the inevitable competition among public interest values. Some members of civil society are bound by their mission to prioritize one public interest value over another. For example, an organization focused on the digital manifestation of a societal ill (such as poverty or racial equity) may not prioritize a more expansive value like free expression ahead of their core mission. How civil society groups with missions rooted in parallel values reconcile or align their values to work together is essential in building a better internet.

Another potential pitfall is the impact of industry players when they see value in the framing of a public interest value. Make no mistake, industry is driven by the bottom line. Businesses strategically co-opt a public interest value to put a persuasive face on their profit driven interest. Industry players also bring expertise as innovators, and influence in policy making, that can push change in a positive or negative direction. The independence of civil society groups is also essential, despite the political opportunities that will come to work with industry players while moving policy.

But make no mistake: The power of communications tools continues to grow at an extraordinary pace. If we fail to find the balance between the promise of innovation and the accountability for it, we will continue to see it create great harm in our society. Communication is that powerful.

Public Knowledge’s mission is rooted in a few key values and that mission will not change. But as we work as a part of a broader civil society community, we know the importance of defining and sharing a broader set of public interest values that should drive technological innovation and policy development. I invite others to join us in developing that values-based vision for what a better internet looks like.

Register to attend “How Public Interest Values Shape A Better Internet” on Tuesday, January 18 at 2pm ET.