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We need a full public service internet – state-owned infrastructure is just the start
The UK Labour Party’s 2019 election manifesto contains plans to bring BT’s internet infrastructure business into public ownership by creating British Broadband and to roll out and provide superfast broadband free to all households and businesses. This would be funded via a digital tax on the profits of internet giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook.
I believe this will help improve Britain’s relatively poor rate of full-fibre internet connection. But we also need to address the wider problems faced by internet users. The consequences of the current model of digital capitalism have been surveillance, privacy violations, digital monopolies, fake news, filter bubbles, post-truth politics, digital authoritarianism, online nationalism, digital tabloids and high-speed flows of superficial content. To change this, we need a full public service internet.
The current internet consists of the technological infrastructure, the platforms (websites and apps) that provide digital services, and the content generated by and stored on these platforms. A public service internet would comprise public organisations and co-operatives that provide all three of these elements on a not-for-profit basis.
Publicly-owned telecoms companies, as Labour is proposing, are one important way to provide the infrastructure aspect of a public service internet. But community-owned networks – such as B4rn, Freifunk, Guifi or Sarantaporo – have also started to emerge as another, complementary alternative. Community networks have a special role in rural and other areas where private corporations find it unprofitable to roll out communications infrastructure. Research has shown that partnering with public and municipal services, rather than competing with them, can work well for these organisations.
For public service internet platforms, existing public service media organisations such as the BBC can provide one important dimension. BBC iPlayer, for example, is already an important rival to the likes of Netflix, Apple TV and Amazon Prime. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested the creation of British Digital Corporation to provide content from the BBC, public archives and even an alternative social network.
Another dimension is offered by platform cooperatives, democratically governed internet platforms owned by their users and workers. Examples are the collaboration platform Loomio, the photography co-op Stocksy, the online music co-op Resonate, Fairbnb and Taxiapp. By focusing on public benefit instead of profit, these platforms can protect users’ privacy instead of constantly watching them in order to sell their data.
A public service internet could also democratise the ownership and use of entertainment content, so much of which is currently dominated by transnational multimedia corporations that effectively control popular culture.
Imagine that public service broadcasters, museums, libraries and other public organisations could make all of their audio and visual archive material available on a public service YouTube under a Creative Commons licence. Groups of users in schools, community centres, local associations and so on could reuse that material for creating their own videos and podcasts. Public institutions could even feature selected user-generated content.
We could then watch, listen to, discuss and engage with audiences’ creative co-productions on the BBC, in the British Library, the British Museum, the Tate galleries. This would update public service media’s purposes to advance democracy, culture and education could be updated to also include the public values of digital participation and digital creativity.
In this way, a public service internet would not only offer a different model of ownership and governance but also a different culture and morality, regulated not by the market but by fairness, democracy and justice. These values could help revitalise online debate in the age of filter bubbles, post-truth and fake news.
Just as public service broadcasters like the BBC commit to advancing public values, public service internet organisations should commit to informing and educating users and fostering democratic communication and cooperation. This digital public sphere would also provide the time and space for discussions that could raise the level of online debate to address the culture of fake news and digital tabloids.
The 2018 Alternative Internet Survey, part of the EU-funded research project netCommons, found that internet users have a large interest in an alternative, not-for-profit internet, so there is the potential appetite to create one. To make it happen, the various components could be funded from a combination of digital taxes on internet giants and an expanded digital licence fee. This could be organised as a progressive charge based on annual income and not just be paid by households but also companies, especially large ones, that benefit from using a free public internet connection.
The Labour Party’s suggestion that the internet should be free to access allows us to think more broadly about how alternatives to the corporate internet should look. A public service internet has the potential to reinvigorate both public service media and community media in the digital age.