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It's hard to think of anything that's changed our world as much as the Internet. I'm just old enough to remember a time before our lives were entirely online. These words you're reading are being delivered to you over a network that didn't exist until a few years ago. We're experiencing something together that almost everybody who ever lived could barely hope to understand.
And it all just happened in the last few years. This is why the Internet matters; and this is what we should do about it.
The network is the new engine for democracy and commerce. Before we were online, we were offline. If we wanted to make decisions, we had to physically come together. That made negotiation difficult and time consuming and expensive. Perhaps if the colonists could have gotten onto a Zoom call with Parliament, they might have been able to work out their differences peacefully. (Or maybe we could have found out that much quicker that there was no room for discussion, and that we should move up the the timeline for revolution.)
The Internet is the future of how we will make decisions as a society, and is also the primary source we have for information. We learn online, we are entertained online, and we are informed and misinformed online. This is where the national dialogue is happening. It's no longer an exchange of letters between the elite, op-eds in newspapers or TV anchors, but everyday people sharing ideas (and often dangerous memes) right here, right now.
The Internet matters.
Most Americans now have access to the network, not just at home but on the go as well. But during the pandemic, the shift of many jobs and most schooling to online highlighted that our access is not equal. Figuring out how to ensure that everyone is able to get to the Internet is essential for our democracy and our economy. But the process of doing that is anything but simple.
Direct subsidies for internet and telephone services have been tried and are ongoing, such as the FCC's Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit programs . It's not clear how well these are doing, though, and if this is even a good model .
Whatever the approach, we need to find a way to ensure that everyone can be online. It's the commons of the 21st century. It's the place were dialogue and commerce happens. Everyone has to be able to be there.
Since we're doing everything on the Internet, the question becomes what shouldn't be on the Internet. What traffic and activities should be restricted and limited? That answer feels fairly straightforward: anything we wouldn't want to exist offline shouldn't be online either: child pornography, personal financial information, health records, etc.
The harder question is: how do we do it? Unlike broadcast media such as television and radio, or print media like books and magazines, there are no central sources for the Internet. The network is widespread and disparate. It's hard to even tell when content is hosted within the borders of the United States, and harder still to separate legitimate and illegitimate traffic.
This is a technical problem. It is absolutely possible to send an effectively uncrackable, secure message through a public channel like the Internet. This cannot be stopped by governments, though they have tried . In fact, the only viable way to catch online criminals is not to view their messages in transit, but to infiltrate their organizations the old fashioned way.
The only thing the government can do is to try and audit how companies collect and use private information. Perhaps it's time to have regulators occasionally show up in the offices of tech companies like Facebook and Google, reviewing the code as it is written, reporting on their operations just like the health department does surprise inspections of restaurant kitchens.
These are all difficult problems. But if we're willing to talk about them, we can find a way forward. There's no use in ignoring them. The Internet, after all, is here to stay.