Say the word “internet” these days, and most people will call to mind images of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, of Google and Twitter: sprawling, intrusive, unaccountable. This tiny handful of vast tech corporations and their distant CEOs demand our online attention and dominate the offline headlines.
But on the real internet, one or two clicks away from that handful of conglomerates, there remains a wider, more diverse, and more generous world. Often run by volunteers, frequently without any obvious institutional affiliation, sometimes tiny, often local, but free for everyone online to use and contribute to, this internet preceded Big Tech, and inspired the earliest, most optimistic vision of its future place in society.
When Big Tech is long gone, a better future will come from the seed of this public interest internet: seeds that are being planted now, and which need everyone to nurture them.
The word “internet” has been so effectively hijacked by its most dystopian corners that it’s grown harder to even refer to this older element of online life, let alone bring it back into the forefront of society’s consideration. In his work documenting this space and exploring its future, academic, entrepreneur, and author Ethan Zuckerman has named it our “digital public infrastructure.” Hana Schank and her colleagues at the New America think tank have revitalized discussions around what they call “public interest technology.” In Europe, activists, academics and public sector broadcasters talk about the benefits of the internet’s “public spaces” and improving and expanding the “public stack.” Author and activist Eli Pariser has dedicated a new venture to advancing better digital spaces—what its participants describe as the “New Public”.
Not to be outdone, we at EFF have long used the internal term: “the public interest internet.” While these names don’t quite point to exactly the same phenomenon, they all capture some aspect of the original promise of the internet. Over the last two decades, that promise largely disappeared from wider consideration. By fading from view, it has grown underappreciated, underfunded, and largely undefended. Whatever you might call it, we see our mission to not just act as the public interest internet’s legal counsel when it is under threat, but also to champion it when it goes unrecognized.
This blog series, we hope, will serve as a guided tour of some of the less visible parts of the modern public interest internet. None of the stories here, the organizations, collectives, and ongoing projects have grabbed the attention of the media or congressional committees (at least, not as effectively as Big Tech and its moguls). Nonetheless, they remain just as vital a part of the digital space. They not only better represent the spirit and vision of the early internet, they underlie much of its continuing success: a renewable resource that tech monopolies and individual users alike continue to draw from.
When Big Tech is long gone, a better future will come from the seed of this public interest internet: seeds that are being planted now, and which need everyone to nurture them until they’re strong enough to sustain our future in a more open and free society.
But before we look into the future, let’s take a look at the past, to a time when the internet was made from nothing but the public—and because of that, governments and corporations declared that it could never prosper.
This is the introduction to our blog series on the public interest internet. Read more in the series: