To Thrive, Our Democracy Needs Digital Public Infrastructure

Article by Eli Pariser and Danielle Allen: “The story of how the internet has become so broken is already familiar. More and more of our public life takes place on big tech platforms optimized for clicks, shares, and virality. The result is that we spend our online time largely in rule-less spaces that reward our worst impulses, trap us in bubbles of like-minded opinion, and leave us susceptible to harassment, lies and misinformation. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube each took first steps to rein in the worst behavior on their platforms in the heat of the election, but none have confronted how their spaces were structured to become ideal venues for outrage and incitement…

The first step in the process is realizing that the problems we’re experiencing in digital life — how to gather strangers together in public in ways that make it so people generally behave themselves — aren’t new. They’re problems that physical communities have wrestled with for centuries. In physical communities, businesses play a critical role — but so do public libraries, schools, parks and roads. These spaces are often the groundwork that private industry builds itself around: Schools teach and train the next generation of workers; new public parks and plazas often spur private real estate development; businesses transport goods on publicly funded roads; and so on. Public spaces and private industry work symbiotically, if sometimes imperfectly.

Beyond their instrumental value for prosperity, we need public spaces and institutions to weave and maintain our social fabric. In physical communities, parks and libraries aren’t just places for exercise or book-borrowing — they also create social connections, a sense of community identity, and a venue in which differences and inequalities can be surfaced and addressed. Public spaces provide access to essential resources for people who couldn’t otherwise access them — whether it’s an outdoor workout station, basketball court, or books in a library — but they are some of the few spaces in a community where we get a glimpse of each other’s lives and help us see ourselves as part of a pluralistic but cohesive society….

If mission, design and governance are important ingredients, the final component is what might be called digital essential workers — professionals like librarians whose job is to manage, steward, and care for the people in these spaces. This care work is one of the pillars of successful physical communities which has been abstracted away by the existing tech platforms. Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10,000 librarians for the Internet, while Sarah R. Roberts has pointed out that doing curation at scale would be impossible within the current social media business model. At a time when our country is pulling apart and many Americans need work, it’s worth considering whether we need an AmeriCorps for digital space.

How might we pay for this? A two-year project one of us helped lead at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a final report that recommended taxing what’s known as “targeted advertising” — the kind Google and Facebook rely on for their revenue — in order to support the democratic functions social platforms have had a hand in dismantling, like local journalism. The truth is that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have displaced and sucked the revenue out of an entire ecosystem of local journalistic enterprises and other institutions that served some of these public functions. Those three companies alone made nearly $33 billion in profits in the third quarter of 2020 alone — and that profit margin in part comes from not having to pay for the negative externalities they create or the public goods they erode. Using some of those funds to support public digital infrastructure seems eminently reasonable….(More)”.