Can we imagine a better Internet?

The convenience of thinking together

by Alina Utrata and Julia Rone

Reflecting on our recent tech and environment workshop, two of our workshop hosts, Alina Utrata and Julia Rone, explore the questions from the event that are still making them think.

On June 17, over 40 participants from all over the world joined our workshop exploring “the cost of convenience” and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Instead of having academics presenting long papers in front of Zoom screens with switched-off cameras, we opted for a more dialogic, interactive and (conveniently) short format.

We invited each participant (or team of participants) to share a provocation across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus and discussed in small groups. Then, in panel sessions we discussed the provocations (what we know already), the known unknowns (what we don’t know yet), and ideas for an action plan (what could we be doing). 

Below are our reflections on the workshop.

A visual representation of the workshop, produced by artist Tom Mclean.

There is no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis

By Alina Utrata

I am currently working on the relationships between technology corporations and states.

For me, what stood out about the discussions was the sense among all participants that there was no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis.

Instead, the conversations often revolved around globally embedded systems and structures of power—and asking why a certain technology is being deployed, by whom, for whom and how, rather than whether they could “fix” anything.

“I was inspired by how participants immediately recognised the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.”

Alina Utrata

In fact, it was pointed out that often the creators of these technological innovations deliberately promoted certain kinds of narratives about how they wanted the technology to be thought of—for example, the “cloud” as a kind of abstract, other place in the sky, rather than a real, tangible infrastructure with real costs.

The same could be said of the metaphors of “carbon footprint” or “carbon neutral”—the idea that as long as discrete, individual corporate entities were not personally responsible for a certain amount of emissions, then they could not be held culpable for a system that was failing the planet. 

Credit: Alex Machado for Unsplash

I was inspired by how participants immediately recognized the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.

Although many political concepts today are so commonplace that they seem ordinary, we discussed how they are often really quite modern or Western in origin.

For example, the idea of the shared, communal commons is an ancient one, and can be used as a political framework to tackle some of the harmful systems humans have put in place on our earth. 

Finally, we acknowledged that we all have a role to play in this fight for our future—but not all of us have or need to play the same role.

Some of us will be activists outside these systems of power, and some of us will be sympathetic voices from within.

The participants reaffirmed the need to both communicate and coordinate across disciplines within academia, and more broadly in sectors across the wider earth.


Should we abolish the Internet?

By Julia Rone

 Credit: Denny Müller for Unsplash

I am currently working on the democratic contestation of data centre construction.

John Naughton often says during our weekly meetings that the most interesting conversations are those that finish before you want them to end. That was definitely the case for me at the workshop since of each the sessions I hosted ended with a question that could be discussed for hours and that still lingers in my mind.

Concepts and conceptual problems

If I have to identify the key common threads running through the three sessions I hosted, the first one has to with concepts and conceptual problems. 

Several participants posed the crucial question how do we think of “progress”.

Is progress necessarily synonymous with growth, increased efficiency, better performance?

What are we sacrificing in the name of “progress”?

One participant asked the painfully straight-to-the-point question: “Should we abolish the Internet?” (considering the massive toll of tech companies on the environment, the rise of hate speech, cyber-bullying, polarization, etc.)

Do we feel loss at the thought? 

“Yes!” – I immediately said to myself.- “How could I talk to my family and to my friends”.

This question really provoked me to think further.

If I can’t live in a world without the Internet, can we think of a different Internet?

How can we re-invent the Internet to become more caring, accessible, more Earth-based and less extractive (as one of the provocations suggested).

Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona for Unsplash

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Another, similarly important conceptual question was posed at the very end of the second session by a collegue who asked “What does it mean to be sustainable?” Why do we want to be sustainable? What and whom are we sustaining?

Should we not rather think of ways to radically change the system?

Our time ran out before discussing this in depth and therefore this question has also been bothering me since then. 

Ultimately, as another participant emphasised, research on the environmental impact of tech is most problematic and underdeveloped at two levels – the levels of concepts (how do we think of abstraction and extraction, for example?), but also at the lowest level of what individuals and communities do.

This latter question about on-the-ground labor, work and action is actually the second common thread between several of the contributions in the sessions I attended.

“It is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones.” 

A colleague studying workers who do repair for their livelihood (not as a hipster exercise) rightly pointed out that when discussing the environmental consequences of tech, and practices such as repair in particular, it is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones. 

Indeed, in a different context, scholars of the environmental impact of tech have clearly shown how tech companies’ extractive practices towards nature go hand-in-hand with dispossession, economic exploitation and extraction of value and profit from marginalised communities.

“In order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research.”

Julia Rone

Another colleague had studied the ways in which local leaders participate in decision-making about data centres in Thailand and controversies around water use – a topic very relevant to my own current project on data centres in the Netherlands.

Another participant yet had studied how participatory map-making not only consumes electricity but also changes the very way we see nature.

The reason why I found all these contributions so fascinating is that they challenged simplistic narratives of Big Tech Vs the Environment and showed how many players (with how many different intentions, principles and economic interests) are actually involved in the increasingly complex assemblage of humans-nature and tech. 

So to sum up – in order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more clear about the concepts we use as researchers but also to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research. 

To summarise…

Ultimately, each of us who attended (and hosted) the sessions of the workshop have a rich but still incomplete overview of the workshop.

By attending different sessions, there were provocations that individually we missed as sessions intertwined and overlapped (a bit like tectonic plates readjusting meaning, ideas and new perspectives for research).

We would love to hear from other attendees from the workshop, the ideas that struck them most during the sessions.

Luckily, some participants have submitted their provocation to our Zine, a unique document that we will share soon to help guide us forward in our thinking.

We can’t wait to share the Zine with you… stay tuned.

Silencing Trump and authoritarian tech power

John Naughton:

It was eerily quiet on social media last week. That’s because Trump and his cultists had been “deplatformed”. By banning him, Twitter effectively took away the megaphone he’s been masterfully deploying since he ran for president. The shock of the 6 January assault on the Capitol was seismic enough to convince even Mark Zuckerberg that the plug finally had to be pulled. And so it was, even to the point of Amazon Web Services terminating the hosting of Parler, a Twitter alternative for alt-right extremists.

The deafening silence that followed these measures was, however, offset by an explosion of commentary about their implications for freedom, democracy and the future of civilisation as we know it. Wading knee-deep through such a torrent of opinion about the first amendment, free speech, censorship, tech power and “accountability” (whatever that might mean), it was sometimes hard to keep one’s bearings. But what came to mind continually was H L Mencken’s astute insight that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”. The air was filled with people touting such answers.

In the midst of the discursive chaos, though, some general themes could be discerned. The first highlighted cultural differences, especially between the US with its sacred first amendment on the one hand and European and other societies, which have more ambivalent histories of moderating speech. The obvious problem with this line of discussion is that the first amendment is about government regulation of speech and has nothing whatsoever to do with tech companies, which are free to do as they like on their platforms.

A second theme viewed the root cause of the problem as the lax regulatory climate in the US over the last three decades, which led to the emergence of a few giant tech companies that effectively became the hosts for much of the public sphere. If there were many Facebooks, YouTubes and Twitters, so the counter-argument runs, then censorship would be less effective and problematic because anyone denied a platform could always go elsewhere.

Then there were arguments about power and accountability. In a democracy, those who make decisions about which speech is acceptable and which isn’t ought to be democratically accountable. “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances,” fumed EU commissioner Thierry Breton, “is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organised in the digital space.” Or, to put it another way, who elected the bosses of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter?

What was missing from the discourse was any consideration of whether the problem exposed by the sudden deplatforming of Trump and his associates and camp followers is actually soluble – at least in the way it has been framed until now. The paradox that the internet is a global system but law is territorial (and culture-specific) has traditionally been a way of stopping conversations about how to get the technology under democratic control. And it was running through the discussion all week like a length of barbed wire that snagged anyone trying to make progress through the morass.

All of which suggests that it’d be worth trying to reframe the problem in more productive ways. One interesting suggestion for how to do that came last week in a thoughtful Twitter thread by Blayne Haggart, a Canadian political scientist. Forget about speech for a moment, he suggests, and think about an analogous problem in another sphere – banking. “Different societies have different tolerances for financial risk,” he writes, “with different regulatory regimes to match. Just like countries are free to set their own banking rules, they should be free to set strong conditions, including ownership rules, on how platforms operate in their territory. Decisions by a company in one country should not be binding on citizens in another country.”

In those terms, HSBC may be a “global” bank, but when it’s operating in the UK it has to obey British regulations. Similarly, when operating in the US, it follows that jurisdiction’s rules. Translating that to the tech sphere, it suggests that the time has come to stop accepting the tech giant’s claims to be hyper-global corporations, whereas in fact they are US companies operating in many jurisdictions across the globe, paying as little local tax as possible and resisting local regulation with all the lobbying resources they can muster. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter can bleat as sanctimoniously as they like about freedom of speech and the first amendment in the US, but when they operate here, as Facebook UK, say, then they’re merely British subsidiaries of an American corporation incorporated in California. And these subsidiaries obey British laws on defamation, hate speech and other statutes that have nothing to do with the first amendment. Oh, and they should also pay taxes on their local revenues.

The European Commission launches Amazon probe

John Naughton

The European commission has opened an antitrust investigation of Amazon, on the grounds that the company has breached EU antitrust rules against distorting competition in online retail markets. Amazon, says the commission, has been using its privileged access to non-public data of independent sellers who sell on its marketplace to benefit the parts of its own retail business that directly compete with those third-party sellers. The commission has also opened a second investigation into the possible preferential treatment of Amazon’s own retail offers compared with those of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services.

The good news about this is not so much that the EU is taking action as that it is doing so in an intelligently targeted manner. Too much of the discourse about tech companies in the last two years has been about “breaking them up”. But “break ’em up” is a slogan, not a policy, and it has a kind of Trumpian ring to it. The commission is avoiding that.

It is also avoiding another trap – that of generally labelling Amazon as a “monopoly”. As the analyst Benedict Evans never tires of pointing out, a monopoly in what market, exactly? In the US, Amazon has about 40% of e-commerce. That looks like near dominance, in competitive terms. But e-commerce is only 16-20% of all retail. “So,” asks Evans, “does Amazon have 40% of e-commerce or 10% of retail? Amazon’s lawyers would argue, entirely reasonably, that Amazon competes with Walmart, Costco, Macy’s and Safeway – that it competes with other large retailers, not just ‘online’ retailers. On that basis, Amazon’s market is ‘retail’ and its market share in the US is between 5% and 10%.

On the other hand, if you’re a book publisher, then Amazon definitely looks like a monopoly with more than half of all book sales and probably three-quarters of all ebook sales. The moral for regulators, therefore, is that if you want to go after a monopolist then choose the market carefully. And this is what the commission has done, because in Amazon’s own online “marketplace”, where third parties sell stuff on its platform, it very definitely is a monopoly. And, according to the US House of Representatives recent inquiry, it is abusing its power in that particular marketplace. The EU inquiry will be into whether that is also happening in Europe.

The traditional response to such charges is that if people want to trade in Amazon’s hyper-efficient online marketplace then they have to play by Amazon’s rules. After all, nobody’s forcing them to be there. (The same argument is made about Apple’s app store.) That might work if there were dozens of alternative marketplaces, but network effects have led to a situation where a winner has taken all. In the online world, Amazon is a giant while all others are minnows. And the pandemic has further reinforced its dominance. So it really matters if the company is indeed abusing its monopoly in its own marketplace. What makes it worse is that Amazon is both a player in that marketplace and the adjudicator of complaints about its behaviour. Judge and jury and all that.

Breaking Amazon up is unlikely to be an effective remedy to this kind of problem. What is probably needed are laws that regulate behaviour in online marketplaces, which, for example, make it illegal both to run a market and trade in it on your own account. That’s not to say that break-up might not be appropriate in some cases. Maybe Facebook should be forced to disgorge Instagram and WhatsApp and Google to liberate YouTube. Even then, though, history provides some cautionary tales.

Take AT&T, for example, which for many decades was a lightly regulated monopoly with total control over the US telephone network. This had benefits, in the sense that the country had a pretty good analogue phone system. But it also had grievous downsides, because it meant that AT&T controlled the pace of innovation on communications technology, which effectively gave it the power to apply the brakes to the future. The company rejected the idea of packet-switching (the underpinning technology of the internet), for example, when it was first proposed in the early 1960s. Worse still, in the mid-1930s, after a researcher at Bell Labs invented a method of recording audio signals on to magnetised wire reels, he was forced to stop the research and lock away his notebooks because AT&T feared that it would damage the telephone business. So a technology that proved essential for the digital computing industry was hidden away for 20-plus years.

Eventually, though, the “break ’em up” mania took hold, and in the early 1980s AT&T was dismantled into seven companies – the “baby bells”. You can guess what happened: some of the babies grew and grew and swallowed up others, with the result that there are now two giant corporations – AT&T and Verizon. So even if WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram were liberated from their existing parents, network effects and capitalist concentration will make them into a new generation of tech giants and we will be back here in 20 years wondering how to regulate them. The truth is that regulation is hard and focused and intelligent regulation is even harder. So maybe the way the EU is going about it is the path to follow.

[A version of this post appeared in The Observer, 15.11.2020]

Market definitions and tech monopolies

John Naughton

The tech analyst Ben Evans has an interesting essay on his Blog about the difficulties of defining ‘monopoly’ in the context of the industry. This is one of his hobby-horses, but he’s always provocative. For example:

One of the basic building blocks of any competition case is market definition. If you’re claiming that a company has market dominance, and that it’s abusing that dominance, what market are we talking about? Very obviously, the company being prosecuted tries to draw the definition as widely as possible – ‘we compete with the entire planet!’ – and the prosecutor tries to draw it as narrowly as possible – ‘Ferrari has a monopoly of rear-engined Italian sport cars with horse logos!’

The fun part of this is that both of these definitions are true, and so you have dig rather deeper and work out what problem you’re trying to solve to work out what definition to use, because very often, picking the definition decides the outcome of the case, before it’s even started.

These questions come up a lot in talking about Amazon. If you read the accounts and do the numbers, you can work out that it has about 40% of US ecommerce (I wrote about this here). But US ecommerce is only part of total US retail – it was about 16% in 2019 and this year, with lockdown, it’s spiked to a bit over 20%.

So, does Amazon have ~40% of ecommerce or ~10% of retail? Amazon’s lawyers would argue, entirely reasonably, that Amazon competes with Walmart, Costco, Macy’s and Safeway – that it competes with other large retailers, not just ‘online’ retailers. Indeed, many people who argue most strongly for antitrust intervention against Amazon do so because it competes with physical retail – because they worry what Amazon will do not just to Costco but to their neighbourhood stores. On that basis, Amazon’s market is ‘retail’ and its market share in the USA is between 5% and 10%. 

On the other hand, if you’re a book publisher, you don’t care what Amazon’s share of shoe sales is. Amazon has well over half of US book sales, and probably three quarters of ebook sales. So if we’re arguing about how Amazon runs its books business, it unquestionably has market dominance. You have to pull out a segment, not the whole company. Of course, this works both ways – if you’re pulling out segments, then Amazon has 1% of US grocery sales (even Walmart only has 20%), and you can’t complain about it buying Whole Foods. 

You get the picture: he’s great at asking questions. But he doesn’t have the answers. And, at the moment, does anyone?