Not so long ago, as the internet emerged from the dial-up era and corporations were just beginning to monetize it, many writers argued that broadband would usher us into a new digital “utopia.” In 1996, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace about the new ethics of the internet.
According to Barlow, a brave new online world that “all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth” was on its way. This new frontier would be “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” and lead us to collective enlightenment.
That didn’t quite happen.
While the internet has enhanced many aspects of our lives, the rise of deadly online propaganda, persistent privacy scandals, giant telecom monopolies, and weaponized trolling has stripped the bloom from the rose.
Consider Facebook’s repeated failure to properly protect our data, Twitter’s inaction against hate on its platform, and Comcast’s quest for total domination of the broadband connections to the home and the content traveling over them.
It doesn’t have to be this way, as the history of past technological shifts shows. Early transit and electrification efforts in the early 20th century required a broad partnership between the public and private sectors to protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Such cooperation has been lacking in broadband service, resulting in a market peppered by apathetic monopolies.
In response, however, a growing chorus has emerged arguing for greater public involvement in providing what they view as an essential utility. Many cities across the U.S. have started to develop their own reliable and affordable broadband services. These efforts hope to shift the balance of power more heavily toward the public interest, broadening both broadband availability and internet accountability. But while this local-level campaign may help redefine broadband as a utility that everyone should have access to, the move is angering an internet service provider (ISP) industry that’s…