Lessons from the First Internet Ages Symposium Reflections

Like all technologies, the Internet bears the imprint of the society that produced it. It was born of America’s Cold War, its one-million-dollar price tag a rounding error in the enormous technological investment the U.S. government made in the name of fighting Soviet socialism. It evolved into an open, distributed network at a time of growing revolt against that military-industrial complex, distrust of public institutions and idealism about the potential of digital technologies to uplift and empower. Its builders and users were generationally distinctive and especially privileged: highly educated; mostly young, white, male and American; often living and working on the West Coast.

The network commercialized as the Iron Curtain collapsed and global enthusiasm for free trade grew. It expanded thanks to America’s bipartisan embrace of deregulated, market-driven solutions over New Deal statism, and leaders’ eagerness for “new economy” industries to reclaim America’s dominance on the world economic stage. John Perry Barlow issued his techno-libertarian manifesto A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. The same year, Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over” and signed into law a transformative telecommunications reform bill that established the Internet age’s self-regulated status quo.

Ties between Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, grew tighter during the technophilic presidency of Barack Obama, then soured during the term of Donald Trump. But a soaring stock market and cuts to the corporate tax rate lifted tech valuations into the stratosphere. An easing monetary policy environment generated enormous reserves of private capital sloshing around the global financial system, spurring an unprecedented upswell of investment in new ventures and established companies alike. Immense capital infusion financed remarkable technological advances in cloud infrastructure, mobile technologies and machine learning.          

Internet-based companies have been able to achieve a stunning breadth of operations and high degree of global market penetration in a relatively short period. And for all the triumphal declarations of cyberlibertarian statelessness, this global network remains quintessentially American—in the ideas that made it, the leading companies and the people that dominate it, and the politics ruling it. While most Internet users are now non-U.S. residents and non-English speaking, the demographics of those building and ruling the internet remain remarkably similar as a half-century ago: highly educated; mostly young, white, male and American; often living and working on the West Coast.

This history and these politics were on my mind as I read the reflections and commentary on Lessons from the First Internet Ages, not least because so many of those contributing had played key roles in the Internet’s development and evolution. But historical reflection reminded me how wickedly difficult it is to answer the question posed to this symposium’s respondents and participants: Knowing what you now know about the internet and how your venture turned out, what do you wish you had done differently from the beginning? For so many of the design choices made and the policy pathways taken made sense at the time.

A decentralized, egalitarian network structure made sense when the Internet was a special-purpose research network for government-funded scientists. Section 230 made sense for an Internet economy where data was limited, dial-up was the consumer norm, and less than ten percent of the U.S. population was online. The designers and evangelists of the 1990s Internet were rightly bullish on its potential to be a widely adopted platform for communication and commerce. Few imagined its current algorithmically mediated enormity. As Section 230’s coauthor, Christopher Cox, put it: “By empowering billions of people to speak their minds, we have unleashed the whirlwind.”

There were some early warning signs, of course, some of which surfaced in the symposium’s reflections. The impossibility of truly effective content moderation was already becoming clear in the mid-1990s, when Nirav Tolia was “a surfing Yahoo,” overwhelmed by the explosion of web content. There was only a brief period in the social media era of the 2000s when open-by-default Internet platforms were small enough to quarantine bad user behavior. “For a period, the bad actors could be managed or minimized,” Nicole Wong wrote. “But, over time, these spaces have become playgrounds for trolls.”

Again and again, the commentary underscored the bewildering dissonance between what the Internet was designed to be and the wealth machine it has become. Many of the reflections had a wistful tone, with contributors expressing regrets about paths not taken and utopias lost. “I did not foresee the broad and coordinated weaponization of these open and free spaces that we built and advocated for,” lamented Wong. “I feel I failed my community by not preparing for this from the beginning,” wrote Craig Newmark. Section 230 had protected the nascent online economy as intended, reflected Senator Ron Wyden, but “I wish I had been equally successful at protecting the other essential elements of the open internet: access, competition and personal privacy.”

Scale was another recurring theme. The expansion of Internet access, pushed for so long by so many, has created platforms that are so big, they’re failing. The examples of healthy online communities the respondents could now identify were much like the groups that dominated the Internet in its earliest years: smaller-scale, homogenous, holding with shared histories and cultural norms. “If you want a good society,” Esther Dyson ruefully observed during her conversation with Julia Angwin, “it’s much easier if you’re small.”

Reid Hoffman was one of the few contributors who embraced the Internet’s present scope. “Designing digital communities at scale is no different than designing physical communities at scale,” he wrote. “By continuously innovating and renovating the incentive structures and power structures that define these communities, we can both empower individuals and transform the madness of the masses into the prosperity and well-being of the crowd.”   Hoffman might have been particularly techno-optimistic, but he was not alone in contending that a better Internet age was indeed possible through better technology. Respondents proposed multiple ways in which platforms now might be retrofitted to encourage the good and limit the harms, like better-governed online communities, interoperability, data portability, and greater corporate responsibility.       

These are all constructive and necessary steps the industry could take in order to ensure that the next Internet age is fairer and better. But far more powerful were those reflections that acknowledged the political and social context that built the Internet status quo.

The Internet economy differs from twentieth-century platforms like telephony, radio and television in that it grew large in a four-decade period when state regulatory power was receding. Although the network was (to an even greater degree than its predecessors) directly subsidized and nurtured by government actors in its first quarter-century, the companies sitting atop it have been comparatively unfettered by public-sector guardrails in its second.

This was more than simply pulling back on regulation or antitrust enforcement. It also has been a matter of investing in other ways that propel market growth and wealth creation in the tech sector. Tax cuts and credits as well as revenue offshoring have reduced the tax bills of some large companies to effectively nothing. Governments worldwide have invested heavily in physical network infrastructures and private-sector subsidies to bring the world’s billions online.

Techno-optimistic liberalism and libertarianism has colored how many understand the Internet, as well as how many of its entrepreneurs and developers understand their work and purpose. The focus is on markets, not states; the business model is to disrupt, to look forward, to replace the deliberative and bureaucratic with the fast and frictionless. This mindset has contributed to the sector’s extraordinary growth and technological innovation, and its considerable downstream consequences have spurred a forceful push among American and European lawmakers to regulate the industry.

Yet even the current regulatory debates can obscure the extent to which the Internet economy has been shaped throughout its lifetime by partisan politics and state action. They tend to assume that government intervention will introduce something new and potentially corrosive to the tech ecosystem. In reality, the state has been there all along.

The Internet economy, and particularly its largest social networks, also have taken on outsized roles in civic life because other institutions have lost ground. Gallup polling measuring public confidence in social institutions in the United States shows a steady decline since the 1970s in a range of social institutions, from organized religion to the Supreme Court, public schools to newspapers. Social media not only filled this gap but replaced institutions that tied people together with automated newsfeeds that drove people apart. As Brad Smith and Mary Snapp observed in their reflection, disinformation now surges forth online at “a time when the country cannot rely on the traditional base of established and trustworthy news and journalism—a bedrock of American democracy since the country was founded.”

The ebbing of both state and civic power has resulted in some technology companies have taken on quasi-governmental duties that are more than they can deliver. As Cloudflare’s Matthew Prince put it, “I think it is hard to wrap your head around how a global technology company that really takes off almost instantaneously, and asking, leaning on them to say, ‘Be not only technology experts, but policy experts,’ especially early in their history, is a pretty tall order and a pretty big ask.”

The sheer size, information overload and multiple social disruptions precipitated by today’s Internet make it difficult to home in on what kinds of changes will be most effective. But as I placed the reflections of this symposium in conversation with this broader, and very American, history, I found myself especially drawn to a few of the participants’ suggestions. What if, as Wong suggests, users demand that the Internet slow down and scale down? What if, as Smith and Snapp posit, technology companies invest in and revive local journalism—not for profit or product synergy, but simply as a recognition of its democracy-preserving qualities? What if we find a new business model, neither data-gobbling ads nor paywalled subscriptions, that preserves online openness and accessibility without sacrificing user privacy? What if, as Brewster Kahle suggests, we again think of the Internet as a public good? What if, I add, we subsidize and regulate accordingly?

All these things may be difficult to do. They may likely put a dent in earnings, and slow the accumulation of dazzling Internet fortunes. They will need to be much wider in scope than simple “tech regulation,” but consider a rebalancing of a political economy that in recent decades has favored private enterprise at the expense of public flourishing. They most likely will not happen if they are voluntary instead of demanded by governmental regulation. But they are not impossible.

A little over a century ago, the United States was engaged in a similar reckoning with industries that had moved fast, grown to enormous scale, upended labor markets and supply chains, and become a significant political force. The public response to those corporate giants—through labor organizing, journalistic critique, consumer activism, and state regulation—did not eliminate their profit nor erase the fortunes of their founders. But it precipitated major changes that made these markets a little fairer. It gave just enough oxygen to new entrants, to new ideas, and to new technologies. With enough political imagination and will, we can do the same again today.