Pattern Matching

The Privatized Internet Is Failing Our Kids

The failure of online schooling highlights a basic flaw in our digital infrastructure: It wasn’t built to supply public goods.

Will Oremus
Published in
10 min readSep 12, 2020
Third grader Ava Dweck takes an online class from a friend’s home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

Across much of the United States this week, schools “opened” via the internet, following others that had started remote learning last week or the week before. The results have been, at best, uneven; at worst, heartbreaking.

America’s Covid spring offered a glitchy preview of how replacing school buildings and classrooms with home Wi-Fi and Zoom rooms might work. Now it’s our Covid fall, and this is no longer a test but an emergency. In the face of that emergency, the technologies our society is counting on to rescue our educational system are being exposed as inadequate — and deeply unequal.

The global internet that the U.S. government pioneered and Silicon Valley developed represents a particular vision of cyberspace. With scant regulation or accountability, it has evolved from a Wild West into a sort of corporate feudal state in which giant platform owners and internet service providers set the rules and own the data that their users generate while constantly warring with one another over territory. This privatized internet was neither inevitable nor accidental. “U.S. Begins Privatizing Internet’s Operations,” a New York Times headline reported in 1994, explaining how the federal government had opted to entrust the job of maintaining the “increasingly commercial” global computer network to private firms in the interest of “marketplace efficiencies.”

From a commercial standpoint, the arrangement has in many ways been a wild success. When the pandemic forced office buildings to close and send their workers home, our corporate digital infrastructure proved to be mostly up to the task of keeping things humming — at least, for white-collar information workers. With some hiccups, well-capitalized enterprise software firms such as Atlassian, Microsoft, and Cisco rapidly scaled up to meet the demands of employers, especially larger corporations with deep pockets.