NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology Newsletter V8.0

Welcome back to the eighth edition of the NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology Newsletter! We’re delighted this week to feature an interview with Ben Tarnoff, cofounder of Logic Magazine and author of a new book, “Internet for the People.” He has some thought-provoking ideas about how to fix a broken internet. Of course you’ll also find all the latest news, research, jobs, and events related to public interest tech below. As always, if you enjoy the newsletter, feel free to share it with friends, colleagues, or anyone who you think might be interested. And please do get in touch with us if you have any questions or comments at

Let’s get started…

An Interview with Ben Tarnoff

Ben Tarnoff is a tech worker and co-founder of Logic Magazine, a publication with the goal of deepening the discussion around technology and society. Tarnoff’s work appears in the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, and Jacobin. He is also the author of Voices from the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It, co-authored with Moira Weigel, as well as the brand-new book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future.

Tarnoff’s book introduces readers to the internet as a business. He writes in his New York TImes op-ed: “To build a better internet, we need to change how it is owned and organized — not with an eye toward making markets work better, but toward making them matter less. Deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people, and not profit, rule. This sounds like a protest chant but I mean it quite literally.” We spoke with him about his latest project.

What do you mean when you say “the internet is broken?”

My argument is that the various problems that plague the modern world - from the annihilation of our privacy, to severe inequalities in broadband access, and the proliferation of propaganda on social media - all share a common root in the fact that the internet is owned by private firms and organized around the principle of profit maximization

One example would be Facebook, which is obviously at the center of much of our public conversation around technology, specifically the social harms of technology. Facebook, because of its business model, has been built from the ground up to maximize user engagement.

Because Facebook makes money from targeted advertising, it has every incentive to manufacture as much data about its users as possible - getting them to stay on the site for as long as possible and interact with the site as much as possible. So, Facebook prioritizes content that drives more engagement, which tends to be content that is sensationalistic and provocative and sometimes false. Now that's not that surprising, because that's certainly true in other commercial media spheres as well, like shock jocks and talk radio. The internet is not unique in this respect. What's distinctive is the ways in which that imperative is expressed in an algorithm - software is the mechanism whereby provocative, sensationalist, and false information is getting prioritized.

How does a ‘profit over people’ Internet - what we have now - look by the numbers?

In the U.S., more than 162 million Americans do not access the Internet with broadband speeds. The folks who are disconnected or under connected tend to be rural, low income, or people of color. We pay some of the highest rates in the world for broadband service and yet the U.S. ranks 14th in average connection speeds below Hungary and Thailand. So I think it's fair to say that we have a serious connectivity crisis in this country! As I discussed in my book, the reason for that has to do with the history of the privatization of the internet, in particular how the terms of privatization consolidated a total corporate dictatorship over the internet such that we now have just four companies in the U.S. that control 76% of internet subscriptions. Companies like Comcast, AT&T and others spend billions of dollars on share buybacks, dividends, and executive pay packages. As a result, they're not investing in infrastructure and that's why we have such a pitiful and unequal state of broadband in this country.

Can you expand on why you tie establishing a ‘better’ internet with growing a social movement?

We can’t build a better internet without masses of people coming together. We need to address the root cause of the various problems that have produced the so-called techlash - the tech backlash and flurry of public concern around the role that technology is playing in the deterioration of our social and civic and economic life. If we're serious about doing something about that problem, then I think de-privatization of the internet is the path forward. Of course, there are immense challenges involved in taking such a path because what's needed, ultimately, is a mass number of people taking disruptive action in their workplaces and communities. It’s a very movement-based theory of social change. And in a moment of slow social mobilization in the U.S. that seems unlikely, but as we've seen throughout history and in recent history, that can change quite quickly.

Is it possible, after 30 years of AOL, Ebay, Amazon, and ISPs to have the more egalitarian internet which you’re envisioning? Are there communities doing that now?

My aim in the book is not to provide a utopian proposal exactly but it's to provide a horizon of what a more democratic internet might look like and to provide a handful of reasonably practical pathways towards that horizon.

For example, South Dakota has some of the best fiber-to-home availability in the country and the reason for that is because of these cooperatives that traditionally provided electricity service. They came together to provide high quality broadband service to their communities. When we talk about building a better internet, it's important that we look to existing experiments, for inspiration, and for ideas about what the path forward looks like. We don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Can this be a reality for poorer, urban communities as well, where the infrastructure may not already exist, like in South Dakota?

Absolutely. In the book, one of the projects I discuss is the Equitable Internet Initiative in Detroit. Organizers in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit are creating a broadband network that is free or low cost to its residents. In addition, they are going in these households to teach people how to use the internet because a lot of these people are folks who have never had broadband before, are elderly or disabled, and need help integrating the internet into their lives.

But, I think the main answer to your question is: public investment. We can't solve the connectivity crisis without it. The problem though, is that we're already investing a lot of public money in trying to solve the connectivity crisis, but that money is going to Comcast and other broadband giants to solve the problems they created.

You can order a copy of Tarnoff’s book here.

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