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The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure

Zuckerman, Ethan

"The introduction of new media technologies invariably brings about potent social and economic shifts. We are well into one of those shifts as the advent of the consumer internet has destabilized existing models of news production and distribution and enabled new hegemons to establish massive and powerful businesses. Two decades into this shift, societies are asking difficult questions about whether internet technologies and the business models that accompany them are dangerous for our citizens and our democracies.

At these moments of technological shift, it’s easy to assume that the business models adopted by technological innovators are inevitable and singular. They are not. As Paul Starr established in his magisterial ""The Creation of the Media,"" the paths taken by different nations in their adoption of new communication technologies (movable type, postal mail, telegraph, radio) depend on the politics and economics of the nation as a whole and vary widely from country to country.

This variance continues with the internet, even though the dominance of the United States – and Silicon Valley in particular – creates the illusion that a single economic and legal system governs our online spaces. This illusion obscures possible solutions to the challenges arising around the socially corrosive effects of new media technologies. Because we see the dominance of the internet by Google, Facebook, and others as inevitable, the solution space we consider for combatting mis-/disinformation, polarization, and promotion of extremism is overly constrained. Our solutions cannot be limited to asking these platforms to do a better job of meeting their civic obligations – we need to consider what technologies we want and need for digital media to have a productive role in democratic societies.

At this moment, it’s worth considering the historical introduction of new technologies – radio and television in particular – and examining the different models societies chose to regulate these technologies. In particular, it’s worth reconsidering the history of public service broadcasting, an intervention pioneered in Britain in the 1920s that redefined the relationship between governments, media producers, and citizens and influenced policies around the world. While the spirit of public service media may have its roots in Britain, the specific interventions appropriate for the internet – already a mature and influential technology – may need to be modeled on the rollout of public service broadcasting in the United States half a century later. In that situation regulators acted many years after the advent of a new technology to correct market failures.

The goal of this essay is not to propose a specific plan to implement public service digital media in the United States or elsewhere but to introduce the question of what we might want such media to do – it’s a possible strategy, not a discussion of the specific tactics needed to achieve it. Our responses to the challenges of the contemporary media ecosystem are marked by failures of imagination. So long as we are wedded to the idea that a few large companies will set the rules for speech and discussion online, we will constrain the solution space of possible interventions. My goal is neither to eliminate the powerful internet platforms nor to cede the future to them – it is to imagine possible futures where surveillant advertising delivered by monopoly providers isn’t the only available option to build a thriving future of democratic communications."

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