Is the Internet Being Ruined?

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Are we only seeing what we want to see on the internet? (Photo: Denis Charlet/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Is the Internet Being Ruined?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

It’s a remarkable ecosystem that allows each of us to exercise control over our lives. But how much control do we truly have? How many of our decisions are really being made by Google and Facebook and Apple? And, perhaps most importantly: is the Internet’s true potential being squandered?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted at the end of the transcript.

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Until August of 2014, most people had not heard of Ferguson, Mo. And then, suddenly, everyone had. An 18-year-old black resident of Ferguson was shot and killed by a white police officer. This led to protests, chaos, more violence. The police in Ferguson responded with tear gas and stun grenades:

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So, on Twitter, I noticed that there’s a protest in Ferguson that was being met with a lot of police presence.

Zeynep Tufekci is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She studies the social impact of technology. As the Ferguson story was unspooling, she was trying to keep up on Twitter and Facebook.

TUFEKCI: There was all this talk on Twitter about what looked like real police overreaction. Millions of tweets were apparently sent during this day where people were concentrating on what’s going on, and I switched to Facebook in the middle of all of this. And on Facebook, this whole event that had consumed my Twitter feed didn’t exist. Nothing. And then I’d switch back to Twitter and it was the topic. There were so many people talking about it. And I’d go to Facebook and I’d see nothing.

So I started switching my algorithm to reverse chronological on Facebook, which shows the posts your friends made in order of time, rather than Facebook’s algorithm. And when I do that, I would see people talking about Ferguson. But Facebook’s very sticky in terms of its algorithm. It would just switch me back. I would try to see what my friends were saying, and Facebook would switch me back to its algorithm, which would show me the Ice Bucket Challenge. Which is great — I mean, that’s a great thing for people to do, to donate to research for a disease, but it was all over my feed. Nothing but Ice Bucket for a while. And that was because that challenge was very suited to Facebook’s algorithm, which likes things that people click “like” on. And it also likes things where you upload your own video, and people were uploading their videos of pouring water over their head. It was perfect for Facebook’s algorithm, so it basically took over Facebook.

Meanwhile, this disturbing, difficult, important conversation about U.S. policing and race relations, which would later become a large movement, could only exist on Twitter, where there was no algorithm and it was people’s interest that was driving the conversation.

Today’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is about: the Internet. Yep, the Internet. As we all know, it is a remarkable ecosystem that allows each of us to exercise a certain amount of control, a certain amount of leverage, over our livelihoods, our interactions with friends and family and strangers, maybe even over our politics.

But how much leverage and control do we really have? Is the Internet really the great democratizer, the great decentralizer, that we were told it would be? Or is all that leverage being recentralized to powerful institutions — different ones than in pre-Internet days, but powerful institutions just the same? There have always been gatekeepers — in every aspect of life, throughout history — so it’s not surprising the Internet has them; we’d be naive to expect otherwise. But one of the most intoxicating promises of the Internet was that it would foster a new dimension of openness and independence. So on today’s show: how well is that promise being kept?

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It’s pretty easy to argue that the Internet has been a transformative technology — although some people argue that it hasn’t been. That for all its shiny and sexy features, it isn’t so much a new new thing as it is a sort of booster shot for existing technologies. Email and other Internet communication may be faster, more flexible, and cheaper than snail mail and the landline phone and the telegraph, but it’s still just communication.

You may be extremely reliant on Uber or Spotify or Amazon, but we already had cars, and music, and catalog stores. You may be downright addicted to Facebook or Twitter but we already had — well, mouths, and ears, and friends and enemies. How transformative has the Internet been for you? Your answer probably depends on a lot of factors — at what age you started using it; exactly how and how deeply you engage with it; and maybe the degree to which you want your Internet engagement curated, whether by Facebook or Google or, as a user’s agreement might put it, by any and all platforms now known or hereafter devised.

The Internet will of course keep changing, and it’s already changed a lot. How did it get to where it is? How closely does the modern Internet resemble its original design? Those are some of the questions we’ll be trying to answer today. The episode was inspired by a recent issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The issue was called “The Internet,” and it featured essays by some of the scholars you’ll be hearing from in this episode. Let’s begin at the beginning of the Internet, with Freakonomics Radio’s senior producer Christopher Werth.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH: David Clark first got his hands on a computer in the mid-1960s, when he was a student at Swarthmore College. The IBM computer the school bought was this big, clunky contraption. It filled an entire classroom. And he says everyone took turns using it.

DAVID CLARK: At the time I was an electrical engineer, and when this computer showed up, it actually came with a book with all the schematics. And I sat there and I read them, and I studied the operating system, and I was hooked.

WERTH: Not long after that, Clark switched to computer science and went on to get a Ph.D. at MIT. In fact, he’s still there, as a senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. But, in the 1970s and ’80s, Clark was part of a small, loose-knit group of engineers in academia and at government agencies in the United States and Europe who fantasized about linking all those big, clunky computers together so that people all over the world could collaborate.

They tinkered, they experimented and ultimately figured out what this network that would later be called the Internet should look like; how it should work and function. And to this day, Clark says, everything we do online sits on top of this largely invisible, underlying structure they created. For example, Clark was a key figure in developing the basic language of the Internet, which passes information back and forth by breaking it up into these little pieces called “packets.”

CLARK: Basically, what it does is it numbers all the packets in sequence. When they’re received, it puts them back in the right order. If there’s a missing packet it gets sent again. So eventually, the sequence of packets gets reassembled and then that’s handed on to the application at the receiving side.

WERTH: The important thing to bear in mind, he says, is that there was no central blueprint for the Internet when it was being developed. Engineers, like himself and others, just had this notion of connecting computers together over long distances. And he says it really could have gone any number of ways.

CLARK: We were making this up from scratch as we went. And there weren’t any design principles; there weren’t any guideposts to help us. This was a new, uncharted territory. So recognizing that this is an engineered artifact — it’s not something that just happened — helps you to understand that it could have come out different.

WERTH: That is not to say the Internet wouldn’t have happened at all. In the 1960s, there were technologists who were already dreaming about this stuff.

CLARK: One of the really notable visionaries in this area was a man called J.C.R. Licklider. Everybody called him “Lick.” And he was a genuine visionary.

WERTH: “Lick” was a psychologist and engineer at MIT who was very excited about the computer’s prospects.

ARCHIVAL TAPE OF J.C.R. LICKLIDER: Computer technology has been moving in a way that nothing else people have ever known has moved. Here’s a field that gets a thousand times as good in 20 years.

WERTH: Licklider was also a director at the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA. It was responsible for the creation of ARPAnet, a precursor to the kind of Internet Lick envisioned in the 1960s.

CLARK: Some of the papers he wrote back then are amazing for their predictive quality. He talked about interactive chat. He talked about the Web — although he didn’t call it the Web, of course. We didn’t have that name for it. But he talked about services online, banking and financial services. He talked about games, shopping online. All of these ideas were floating around as potential applications once we built this global network of computers, and that was well-articulated in the 1960’s. What we were doing in the 1970’s was trying to build it.

WERTH: But, people like Clark didn’t have any experience in building a network for sharing information at that scale. At the time, the only thing that had come close had been built by telephone companies. And he says they had a very specific use for that network.

CLARK: It was for carrying phone calls. And there’s a major distinction between the Internet and the telephone system, which is that telephones are pretty stupid.

WERTH: Meaning that a telephone itself doesn’t really do much; it’s the networks they’re connected to that have all the smarts. Telephones are really only good for making and receiving phone calls.

CLARK: All the intelligence in the telephone system is in the switches. That’s where phone numbers are translated. That’s where calls are forwarded. That’s where resources are allocated.

WERTH:  Computers, however, aren’t stupid. They can perform a lot of different functions.They’re what engineers call “general-purpose devices.”

CLARK: And those of us who were building the Internet wanted to build a general-purpose network to hook general-purpose computers together.

WERTH: A network that wasn’t focused on one specific company the way the phone network at the time was built around AT&T or focused on one specific function. They wanted it to be versatile. For example, the first system for sending emails was invented by a computer programmer named Ray Tomlinson in the early 1970’s. He designed it for the people working on ARPAnet so that they’d have an easier way to communicate with each other. And for a long time after it was commercialized , Clark says email was the innovative application.

CLARK: Back then to say that you were on the Internet meant that you had an email address. So we could have built a network that was dedicated to email, but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to build a network that was general, because that made it possible to introduce new applications without modifying the network.

WERTH: And to accomplish that, Clark says they needed to do the opposite of what telephone companies had done. In this case, it was the network, not the devices, that needed to be stupid.

CLARK: In fact, we wanted to build what we have called the “dumb net.” And our whole goal was to make sure that the network was completely ignorant of what the user was trying to do. It just sees data come in one side, and it forwards the data and delivers it to the other side. It’s up to you what that data is. And, in that respect, the core of the Internet is very, very simple because we assumed that all the smarts — the application code and stuff like that — was running on these computers at the edge. So in some sense, we took the design principle of the telephone system and turned it inside out. That’s basically what occupied us during the 1970s. What happened in the 1980s is that we had to deal with issues of scale. We had a sense of hooking up all the computers in the world. The thing that confused us was we misunderstood how many computers there were going to be. And then the personal computer comes along. And there was this moment when we realized, “Oh, there are not going to be hundreds of thousands of computers. There are going to be hundreds of millions of computers.”

WERTH: Hundreds of millions of computers. The 1990’s, of course, saw the introduction of the World Wide Web. And we should be clear: the Web and websites that you visit online are accessed through the Internet. They are two different things, even though we often use those terms interchangeably. By 1995, according to the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of Americans were using the Internet. And for the people who ventured online in those early days …

YOCHAI BENKLER: It was exhilarating.

WERTH: That is Yochai Benkler. He’s a professor at Harvard Law School and a director at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

BENKLER: The experience of being a user in that earlier moment was very much one of discovery, of constantly being able to stumble on new things. That part of it was exhilarating.

WERTH: People were writing on the web, creating their own websites and new online communities, all of which began disrupting the institutions — media and commerce and so on — that had been in place for decades.

BENKLER: There were well-defined control points or tollbooths that someone could sit at and decide: “You get to innovate, you don’t get to innovate. You get to communicate with people you want to communicate, you don’t get to communicate.” That changed dramatically with the Internet, and you saw a radical decentralization of the ability to speak and innovate and communicate without permission. Power was decentralized.

WERTH: And that’s basically how we think about the Internet today: disrupting, and sometimes replacing, traditional institutions and industries. But as the Internet has grown, and the number of global users has topped 3.2 billion people, Benkler says there’s been this really worrisome shift, with a handful of companies — Facebook, Apple, Google — that now have an outsize influence on how we all use the Internet.

BENKLER: What we have seen in the last seven or eight years is that around those open spaces we created in the first two decades, a new set of control points is beginning to emerge on the net.

TUFEKCI: We’re seeing the birth of a new center of power, real power. We depend on these technologies that have been in many ways wonderful and fascinating, and they’ve greatly enriched my life, but these companies have major power, and they’re making significant decisions unilaterally. So there’s a whole host of new questions that haven’t even been explored.

WERTH: Like whether we’re trading that open and exhilarating Internet for a more insular, siloed Internet experience — like the way Facebook prefers the Ice Bucket Challenge over police protests, showing us things it thinks we’ll like instead of what might actually be important. Or, Yochai Benkler says, take the seemingly innocuous shift from the desktop to the mobile Internet.

BENKLER: More than half of Internet access, if you think of time and particular uses, is now moving to the smartphone.

WERTH: Which has also prompted Internet users to migrate from general-purpose web browsers to single-purpose apps: your Facebook app, your Twitter app, your Wall Street Journal app.

BENKLER: When browsers first came out in the 1990s, the idea was: here is a universal standard for describing what it is you want to say or show and if you use that universal language, then anyone using any device can implement this reader. And essentially what the browsers did was they decentralized power from the operating system. If you were writing for Windows, you needed to write for Windows in this way. If you were writing for Apple, you needed to write for Apple in that way. Once you could write something on the web, you could write to this general purpose reader, the browser, and anything could run. What happened with the app is that you got special-purpose containers, if you will, for every kind of content. So you shifted from a general-purpose platform that’s based on open standards and anyone can write what they want, to a platform that says, “Write a very special program that fits only your data.” It’s a complete transformation.

WERTH: To understand that transformation, Zeynep Tufekci says, just look at the very-proprietary iPhone ecosystem that’s been created by Apple.

TUFECKI: It designs the phone, and then it designs the operating system, and then it decides what apps are available on the operating system or not.

WERTH: iPhone users have to go through Apple’s App Store to add almost anything to their devices. And if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of outside developers who produce apps for the iPhone,you can’t just put your app out there. There’s an approval process. And Yochai Benkler says Apple has been known to reject apps that it finds objectionable:

BENKLER: For example, someone developed a game that essentially criticized the manufacturing conditions and the worker conditions at the Chinese company Foxconn that was putting together the iPhone. That got banned on the App Store and removed from the App Store.

TUFEKCI: There was another app that was blocked that sent out a notification every time a drone had been used to kill people. So, it was a political statement to say, “Look, this is how much we’re using drones to do this.” And the App Store wouldn’t approve this.

WERTH: Apple, we should mention, has about a 40 percent share of the market for mobile-operating systems in the United States and roughly 25 percent globally.

TUFECKI: Which means if you’re not in the App Store you’re done, because you lost every Apple phone out there.

WERTH: And while these may sound like fairly minor examples, Benkler says, consider the deal that Apple made to restrict the use of Skype when it first became available on the iPhone in 2009. At the time, AT&T was the iPhone’s exclusive carrier. And AT&T essentially told its customers, “by the way, we have this rule about Skype.”

BENKLER: “You can’t run Skype unless you are on a Wi-Fi network.”

WERTH: Skype was not allowed on AT&T’s cellular spectrum, which Benkler says was unfortunate because Skype was this breakthrough technology. It had finally figured out a way to carry voice calls over the Internet.

BENKLER: Skype innovated in a way that basically was by many people thought theoretically impossible. They didn’t need permission. If they had needed permission from somebody who runs voice services to put the application on, they would have not gotten permission because it would have been considered too poor, too weak, can’t work. And yet it did. But when Skype comes on the iPhone the first time, AT&T doesn’t want it to be run in competition with its voice service.

WERTH: And to be clear, this app-approval business is not confined to Apple. Benkler says Google has a long list of reasons it can reject an app for Android, its own mobile-operating system. And the same goes for Facebook, which has a large community of developers who build products and services around Facebook.

BENKLER: You have to persuade Apple or Google and Facebook to let you in. That’s the critical point.

CLARK: And this is a very different sort of industrial structure than we imagined when we built the Internet. So there’s a kind of regulation or curation of the Internet experience.

WERTH: And he admits that curation can have advantages. More control can make it harder for malicious software to get through. Clark says security is perhaps one thing he and others should have done differently when the Internet was first being developed.

CLARK: One decision we made is that we wanted to make it possible for any computer to establish a connection to any other. On the other hand, it opens up a range of problems when all those other computers in the world try to attack you. Maybe it wasn’t as important as we thought that it be equally easy for every computer in the world to talk to every other one. And in fact, I would say we sort of over-empowered the user, if I can say that.

WERTH: And maybe those security concerns — whether they’re from hackers or terrorists or government institutions — are what’s driving some of the shift towards a more regulated, curated Internet environment. The concern, Clark says, is that the degree of control that offers will simply allow companies to exploit their market power to make more money.

CLARK: And what we see today with the powerful players and I consider Google and Apple and Facebook to be quite powerful players is, I would say, a carefully thought-through and not-surprising attempt to build durability into their dominance.

BENKLER: And then the question becomes, where does the next Google, where does the next Skype, where is the next platform going to come that won’t need permission of somebody who is already there in power to let them in?

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The Internet, in its relatively short history, has already evolved a lot. As we’ve been hearing on the show today, the shape and pace of this evolution was hardly foreordained: its architects intentionally created a wide-open design that would encourage innovation. So far, most of this innovation has come from America, where the Internet itself came from, primarily at least. This too, was hardly foreordained.

Here is a passage from a book called How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, by Benjamin Peters: “In late September 1970, a year after the ARPANET went online, the Soviet cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov boarded a train from Kiev to Moscow to attend what proved to be a fateful meeting for the future of what we might call the Soviet Internet. The Politburo convened that day to hear Glushkov’s proposal and decide whether to build a massive nationwide computer network for citizen use — or what Glushkov called the All-State Automated System, the most ambitious computer network of its kind in the world at the time. [It] was to connect tens of thousands of computer centers and to manage and optimize in real time the communications between hundreds of thousands of workers, factory managers, and regional and national administrators.”

But the Soviet Internet didn’t happen. As Peters writes, it was hardly for want of Soviet technical capability. But instead, because of, quote, “entrenched bureaucratic corruption and conflicts of interest at the heart of the system.” And so: the Internyet. In America, meanwhile, a young Soviet-born computer scientist named Sergey Brin — whose father and grandfather were both mathematicians in the Soviet Union — went on to be a co-founder of Google, a company that essentially owns huge swaths of the Internet, and which last year earned north of $50 billion in online ad revenue, roughly a third of the global total.

So as humble as the Internet’s beginnings may have been, the financial stakes have become very, very high. In fact, one reason that European governments are trying to rein in the dominance of tech firms like Google and Facebook and Uber is that the vast majority of profits of those online platforms, even when used in Europe, are flowing back to American firms. But beyond the billions of dollars that are up for grabs, there’s something perhaps even more valuable: human mindshare. We began this episode with the police shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo.

TUFEKCI: There was all this talk on Twitter about what looked like real police overreaction.

Zeynep Tufekci had noticed that while Twitter was full of Ferguson news, Facebook’s algorithm — and its emphasis on what people “Like” — had largely missed the protests.

TUFEKCI: I’d go to Facebook and I’d see nothing. And the fact that there wasn’t even an editor to hold responsible, and say, “You guys are designing a computer program that is making decisions that has significant consequences for what we, as a public, discuss.” And I can’t even tell what’s going on, let alone ask somebody, “What is going on?” was to me a very telling moment. These complex algorithms are having all these downstream effects that nobody is really thinking or systemically researching, partly because Facebook holds all the private data, and partly because it’s so un-transparent that it’s hard to study. This is not saying Facebook was intentionally censoring Ferguson news. In fact, that would have been an easier story. Then, we would have said, “Oh, how horrible.” It’s more complex. It’s not that Facebook’s censoring anything directly; it’s that Facebook is unleashing these computer programs that are designed to make Facebook advertiser-friendly and that are designed to keep us on the site.

We spoke to Tufekci a few weeks before some people began arguing that Facebook has been censoring news, or at least massaging it. When you have a lot of control over an environment, as Facebook does, it must be tempting to shape that environment, if only subtly, a bit more to your liking. The incentives might be financial, or social, or moral, or some combination thereof.

Google, for instance, recently stopped allowing ads for payday loans — the high-interest, short-term loans that we discussed in a recent episode, called “Are Payday Loans Really as Evil as People Say?” But what most troubles someone like Zeynep Tufekci, who studies the social impact of technology, is how much of this technology is being — well, wasted. Back to Facebook:

TUFEKCI: There’s all these really smart engineers. They’re the brightest computer scientists, and all they’re thinking about is: “How do I keep someone on Facebook for 10 more minutes? What’s the exact combination of things that will keep them staying on the site for as long as possible so we can show them as much advertisement as possible?” And given the amazing, revolutionary, fascinating disruptive potential of the Internet, it really feels like a waste to have this much intelligence and smarts being used to figure out how to keep you clicking on ten more animal videos. Basically Facebook is an environment in which you’re structurally, architecturally encouraged, to be positive and liking things. And that means that most people’s feeds are dominated by happy news. Mine is dominated by engagements, marriages, new babies doing cute things. Now, what I want to do is I want to tell my friend, “I’m glad you had a baby,” And of course when I see one, I click on “Like.” But Facebook interprets that as, “Show me even more babies.” And that means a lot of other things I really care about and post about, they’re hardly seen, because the primary signal, is this “Like” button. And you might say, “Well, it’s a company, and the point of it is to make money. So of course it’s just going to try to keep you on the site.” Well, that’s true, except what this company is producing isn’t just widgets; it’s producing our new 21st-century public sphere. If I want to connect to people all over the world, they all use Facebook, so I’ve got to be on Facebook too.

There’s this feedback cycle, which means Facebook is more valuable because a lot of people are already on Facebook. In fact, they had a very interesting experiment in which Facebook was trying to figure out how hiccups in the program were affecting the users. So they made their mobile sites crash on purpose. And they wanted to know how many times they could crash it before somebody gave up using Facebook. But they couldn’t make people give it up. People would just keep coming back. The reason for it isn’t some abstract thing. It’s because that is where your friends and your family and your acquaintances are. Of course you’re going to come back. It’s a very human thing to to connect with their friends because there’s no alternative.

Look, I have to say, I’ve written articles about how great Facebook is for opposing authoritarianism. So it’s not like I’m anti-Facebook. In fact, I care about it deeply. But it also feels dangerous, because we know from Facebook’s own experiments that slight tweaks to its feed and its algorithm have the potential to influence things like voter turnout and have the potential to even throw close elections. And we know this from Facebook’s own published research. If Facebook doesn’t like a political candidate and tweaks a few lines of code so that its algorithm slightly suppresses positive stories about that candidate — even if you share them, people in your feed never see it, for example — you’d never know this happened. But it would have a global effect.

I’m not saying Facebook is doing it. I’m just saying you’d never know. We don’t even have any clue what’s actually going on, what that algorithm is actually doing. So it’s not just that Facebook is a significant public space. It’s also a place where you can be effectively nudged by the central entity that has an enormous amount of data about you. Now you have things like Twitter, that create an environment that is not shaped by an algorithm, but they’re under great pressure by Wall Street to turn to a kind of Facebook-algorithmic feed that is designed to make it more advertiser-friendly. Advertisement is a teeny, tiny tiny slice of human experience, but it’s dominating our online experience. This seems ridiculous to me.

And that, I think, has been the Internet’s major turning point. Because the dilemma that Internet companies faced as they were scaling up was which financing model to choose. And they could either try to charge the user some amount, or you could go with advertisers. They chose the ad financing, which means you have to please Wall Street and advertisers, which means you have to have a certain kind of experience online. So we, as Facebook’s users, may have a moral claim, because it’s our content that makes the place run, but Facebook is responsive, significantly, to its advertisers. Think of all the things that can’t be adequately addressed by a medium that is geared towards advertiser-friendliness.

CLARK: And of course there’s only a certain amount of money that’s flowing into the Internet.

The advertising model means that a lot of the Internet is free.

CLARK: Facebook is free. Twitter is free.

But that model comes with limitations, especially for startups.

CLARK: As more and more people build applications on the Internet and try to support those applications off of advertising, in some sense there may not be enough advertising money to go around. Just as a rough number, there’s an organization called the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which tracks how much money is spent on interactive ads. And very roughly speaking, in the United States, the amount of money spent per broadband household is about $45 a month. And if you’re a broadband customer, you pay a certain amount of money a month for your broadband. In this country, it runs $40-$50 a month for broadband internet access, which is to say that the totality of what I’m calling, “the free Internet” or the “advertising-supported internet experience” is being supported on less money per month per household than you’re paying for the broadband access. And they’re big players in that space, like Google, who are earning a lot of that money. Facebook is earning a lot of that money. So where’s the money to support the small players coming from? And of course there is a lot of tension around advertising, because in order to show you just the most perfect ad for you, they are tracking your behavior, they are modeling you demographically, and people are very upset about the degree to which everybody in the world seems to know everything about you.

Does this discomfort mean that the Internet’s revenue model will change any time soon?

CLARK: It’s possible we’re going to go to a different revenue model for the Internet, in which more and more of the application services that you use are, in fact, paid for by some sort of fee that you pay as opposed to being supported by advertising. And maybe some consumers would be happier with that, because there might be less of this tracking of your behavior. On the other hand, maybe it’s only privacy advocates who are worried about all that tracking. We don’t quite know.

TUFEKCI: At the moment, if I’m using a new service, I’m always looking for ones that have a small fee of some sort. I want to be their customer. I don’t want to be advertised to or my data sold. So I’m trying to find things like that. And we need a new kind of innovation that allows a small amount of payment to be dispersed over the Internet, so that they’re not all dependent on the advertising. I know a lot of people want to use sites that are free. And I just want to say, that comes with real costs.

BENKLER: The way economists would talk about it is externalities. By using this very convenient, streamlined framework, you are embracing a system that makes innovation and creativity and dissent a little bit harder. And the question becomes how do we start to build systems that will make it as convenient as possible to follow the practices that actually improve our innovation environment, improve our democratic or creative discourse environment, without making it so hard that essentially people constantly need to wear a hairshirt in order to make that happen. That’s hard. That’s a challenge.

So far, that challenge has mostly been handled by government regulators. The FCC, for instance, last year issued an “Open Internet Order” to enact what it calls “strong sustainable rules grounded in multiple sources of legal authority to protect the Open Internet and ensure that Americans reap the economic, social, and civic benefits of an Open Internet today and into the future.” President Barack Obama himself has been a cheerleader for net neutrality.

OBAMA: Ever since the Internet was created, it’s been organized around basic principles of openness, fairness and freedom. 

CLARK: There’s a fear — and I understand the fear — that powerful players who control the pipes or the wires to your house will somehow use the leverage to influence the experience you have, and maybe selectively charge people for using the network, or perhaps favor their own applications or their friends’ applications over third-party apps.

The FCC’s order prevents broadband and cellular providers from manipulating their networks in order to either punish or favor certain online channels. Benkler says he could see the FCC weakening Apple’s control over the iPhone:

BENKLER: You could imagine the App Store being so closely tied to the smartphone, which is so closely tied to cellular. That’s something where you could see net-neutrality extending one layer up.

This is not the U.S. government’s first attempt at leveling the online playing field. In 1998, the Department of Justice brought an antitrust case against Microsoft for bundling a Microsoft web browser, Internet Explorer, with its Windows operating system. Now, maybe you can’t blame Microsoft for trying to monopolize web traffic — just as you couldn’t blame a 19th-century railroad baron for trying to monopolize rail traffic. But Microsoft did not get away with it. Facing a breakup of the company, it settled with the Justice Department and allowed other web browsers into its operating system.

TUFEKCI: And so Windows basically ended up having to operate like a platform in getting on the Internet.

As it happens, Microsoft had already done a pretty good job of putting rival browsers out of business.

BENKLER: The antitrust case essentially came too late. But the critical component was the fact that you actually had development of a free and open-source software alternative in the form of Firefox.

Firefox is the browser developed by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. It has roughly 20 percent of U.S. market share in browsers. But with more than 40 percent is the Chrome browser. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is still hanging on with about 20 percent. And then Safari has nearly 10 percent. Safari belongs to Apple; Chrome, to Google. So, no unfamiliar names there.

But Yochai Benkler argues that the biggest challenge to an open Internet is that most consumers just don’t know much, or maybe care much, about how the online universe really works.

BENKLER: Educating consumers to care about the information environment in the same way that they care about the physical environment in their consumption choices is going to be absolutely critical. I think finding a way to create some sort of a health or an ingredients label that some independent organization can say, “Here are the components of what goes in to your information product. Here’s how they deal with privacy. Here’s how they deal with creative innovation. Here’s how they deal with work practices.” That’s in some sense the holy grail, because once you actually find a way to standardize our understanding of what are the practices we find problematic and applying them to different services, the work of getting people to understand that they need to care about our information environment no less than we need to care about our physical environment will be a little easier. It’s hard to shape consumer practices. It’s hard to get people to recycle; it took years. It’s hard to get people to care about the ingredients of what they eat, but it’s possible. We’ve seen it done over and over again. At the moment, I’d say that people just don’t know. And the critical first step is to get people to care and to find ways that are easy for people to read, that are a decent representation of the problems embodied by the products they so love.

In Benkler’s view — and maybe yours too — the Internet has the potential to create a more engaged and creative society. The risk, he says, is that gatekeepers and profiteers and others will turn it into a more passive ecosystem, less interactive than it could be — more like watching television.

BENKLER: That’s the bad-case scenario. We are not talking about Big Brother, 1984 and all the misery. We are talking about something that is much more like Brave New World, and we are pretty happy on the whole, day-to-day, and we don’t know what the options are beyond that because we have more or less been shaped and manipulated to enjoy what we are enjoying.

You could argue that “being manipulated to enjoy what we are enjoying” is not the worst thing in the world. Perhaps the healthiest way to assess the Internet at this moment in history is just to acknowledge that we can’t really predict at all how it’s going to keep evolving, right? We humans are pretty bad at predicting everything else; why should the future of the Internet be any different?

It’s easy, and perhaps natural, to occasionally get hysterical about any new technology — and the Internet, we have to remind ourselves, is still relatively new. Every time we learn that a terrorist group has used the Internet to recruit members, there’s a call to somehow alter the Internet to prevent that. But technologies themselves are pretty neutral.

If I was the guy who discovered fire, you might have seen it primarily as a threat: “Hey, Dubner, get that outta here. You’re going to burn down the whole cave.” It’d probably take me a while to persuade you that fire is actually pretty useful for cooking food and keeping warm. I think most of us would agree that the Internet has proven pretty useful, in certain doses, and circumstances. But only a fool would think that you’re not going to get burned now and again.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Arwa GunjaJay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg RosalskyCaitlin Pierce, Alison Hockenberry, and Jolenta GreenbergOur intern is Harry Huggins. Thanks again to Daedalus for starting this conversation about the Internet; also thanks to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution for bringing to our attention Benjamin Peters’s book, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet.  If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

 Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
  • David Clark, Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
  • Yochai Benklerprofessor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and a director at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

RESOURCES

ETC.

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