The Case for Public Digital Infrastructure

By David Freid

What do the 24-hour outages of Meta-owned services like Facebook and WhatsApp, the lockout of Russian civilians from using their Visa and MasterCard credit cards tied to the SWIFT system, and the massive outflow of users from one of the world’s most crucial mass communication platforms due to its hostile takeover by a new controversial owner, and the ongoing Fourth Amendment concerns related to warrantless intelligence agency data collection all have in common? The answer is, in part, an extreme centralization of online-enabled services in the hands of private platforms and digital service operators.

These issues impacting our collective digital infrastructure could have been headed off and similar future threats avoided if the development of our digital infrastructure were to have happened with a robust systems approach with the public good in mind. Instead, their development has emphasized centralized systems seeking maximum efficiency and control. For this vital globe-spanning infrastructure, the public, unaware of much of what goes on behind the scenes in the building of the digital world, has been convinced their best option is to trade short-term convenience for long-term stability. This trade-off occurs concerning the viability of the infrastructure systems they rely on and their privacy when using them.

One possible solution to this set of deeply integrated problems is the concept of Digital Public Infrastructure. Within this framework, our society as a whole would invest much more heavily into the development of digital infrastructure and, consequently, would reap more of their benefits without being under surveillance capitalism’s extractive profit motive, as Shoshana Zuboff describes our modern economic system in her 2018 book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” This would also credit governments who have historically funded the development of public digital infrastructure on which these private services rely, as detailed in “The Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato, among other literature.

Part 1: An Introduction to our current Digital Infrastructure

To begin, I would like to briefly cover the current state of our digital infrastructure. An ever-increasing share of our interconnected global society continues to cede control over its valuable online data to private control, led by a small cadre of powerful, well-financed surveillance-oriented Online Service Providers or Platforms (OSPs). These OSPs represent the evolution of mass communication infrastructure into a purely digital space, but the fashion in which they have developed is due to a particular set of economic imperatives imposed upon them by institutional investment priorities and the needs of the national security state, as what Allen Rozenshtein calls surveillance intermediaries.

Because of the tightly held private control of these important OSPs, decisions impacting a large portion of the global population generally occur outside of the public’s input with little regulatory oversight. The decisions represent the ideology of a select group of individuals at the top of these corporations and the investment firms that give them capital. They are generally beholden to the demands of shareholder profit maximization over many other socially conscious considerations. Had these economic relationships been different, the products they would have produced would probably have been very different from today’s platforms, with cascading effects throughout society.

In the United States, the growth and consolidation of this privatized digital services industry were supported by statutes such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, providing liability cover for algorithmic surveillance-based platforms, as well as Section 215 of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 and Section 702 of the US PATRIOT Act of 2001, which forces these OSPs to act as part of the US national security agency’s intelligence collection, solidifying a Nat Sec-Big Tech nexus. Though the point of this paper isn’t to explore the complex legal side of this nexus of law, politics, technology, and economics, much of the tension between the public, privacy advocates, OSPs, and the government lies within this realm of the law. It should be mentioned to frame any debate about shifting power in this space.

Instead, in this paper, I will first define the idea of digital public infrastructure versus other related concepts. I will provide examples that I find essential to understanding the need for digital public infrastructure. Then, I will give examples of how digital infrastructure could be developed with a consumer and citizen-focused mindset, which differs from what we have now. Finally, I will suggest how we can support the development of privacy-first public digital infrastructure.

By the end of this paper, I will have hopefully imparted how important it is to seriously support the development of a general understanding of public digital infrastructure, one which would explicitly support technology development for the public good, rather than our current situation, which emphasizes a surveillance-based model that extracts valuable behavior surplus data from the public at large.

What is Digital Public Infrastructure?

The first question to clear up is, what does Digital Public Infrastructure even mean? Would online services such as Google Search or Fakebook’s Business Profiles which are offered for free mean that they’re digital public infrastructure, even if they happen to be privately owned? The short answer is no. To gain a nuanced understanding of the digital public infrastructure framework, we must first understand the differences between private digital services, which operate as private digital infrastructure, digital public infrastructure, and public digital infrastructure.

Private Digital Infrastructure

Private digital services, which operate as private digital infrastructure, are wholly owned by private entities to generate profits. Private entities provide services and, in many cases, the infrastructure for other businesses to operate within a digitally connected business environment. Implementing digital infrastructure can ease business activities and help provide frictionless consumer experiences. Private digital services include things like Google Search, Facebook or Instagram Business pages, the SWIFT global banking system, video streaming services, point of sale systems, internal networking and accounting systems, customer relations management tools, and many other services and tools that we as consumers deal with on a day-to-day basis, most of which operate in the background. Many of these services are paid for by the businesses that use them, with transaction fees for things like credit cards and point-of-sale systems, ad placement fees for better spots in searches, and the industry that provides security for customer data. These services also drive up the cost of doing business, resulting in a higher entry bar for small businesses.

In fact, an entire industry of [blank]-as-a-service has sprouted up due to new customer expectations and the high costs of hiring in-house teams to run vital digital business infrastructure. This reliance on privately owned services, especially the purportedly free ones, add intermediaries that businesses must rely on to operate in a competitive marketplace. Shifts in platform strategies, terms of services, payment structures, content moderation policies, political tensions, or aforementioned service outages can significantly impact the ability to conduct business and can result in losses of income to the companies. But for certain services, there is little room for businesses not to rely on these private digital infrastructures due to the concentration of online traffic on their platforms.

Digital Public Infrastructure

An important aspect that receives little acknowledgment in mainstream discussions about the digital economic boom is that many for-profit private digital services rely heavily on digital public infrastructure funded by public taxpayer investment. Digital public infrastructure refers to the set of digital tools, technologies, protocols, and standards that have enabled the ability to provide and receive services to citizens and businesses alike, much like roads, canals, and telecommunication wires are physical public infrastructure. Much of this digital infrastructure’s development has come from cooperation between the US government, its military investments, and private corporations.

Digital public infrastructure includes open data standards, interoperability frameworks, common standards, and APIs that enable various digital services to communicate with each other. Things like the World Wide Web (WWW), the internet protocol (TCP/IP), the domain name system (DNS), Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) using public-key infrastructure (PKI), which enables much of the internet’s encryption, and the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), which enables email, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) are all considered digital public infrastructure to name a few.

The evolution of WWW and IP, for example, comes from the US’s development of ARPANET and NSFNET, which were expanded in concert with corporations such as Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), AT&T Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and other research institutions, such as Stanford, with large government-funded contracts and investments. These groups were later able to commercialize the technologies they developed with government support for private profit.

These tools and protocols are considered public infrastructure in terms of who may have access to them, but the governance of these important parts of the digital world is a complex public-private arrangement of governments, private organizations, and technical experts. It is important to consider that they operate within a system that emphasizes profits and surveillance over public privacy and security. For example, the US government played a key role in the establishment of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for managing the DNS, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is responsible for the assignment of IP addresses and domain names. The centralized nature of these systems and their reluctance to invest in needed security upgrades reflect their part in the surveillance intermediary apparatus.

Obviously, these are highly technical organizations that require massive amounts of cooperation between vastly different parties with high levels of expertise, but I argue that it is important to imagine systems of governance where a different set of priorities may assert themselves.

Public Digital Infrastructure

To imagine this alternative universe, we must change the mindset of the actors within this space. One way to do this is to emphasize public good through greater public investment and accountability in the development of digital infrastructure. Doing so would shift the economic incentives for those who are involved in the decision-making process.

Public digital infrastructure refers to digital infrastructure that allows users to interact with the digital world. Importantly, this infrastructure is owned, operated, and managed by the government or, more importantly, by open-source non-profit organizations for the benefit of society outside of a profit motive. It includes essential digital services such as cheap guaranteed access to broadband internet, e-government portals, digital identity systems, and the expansion of data repositories that are accessible to all citizens. Though there are important debates to be had about privacy and responsibility due to the funding with taxpayer money and the involvement of government actors, I argue that through the emergent properties of internet communities and non-profit organizations with technical expertise will be able to take care of development and maintenance of successful public digital infrastructure.

The success and innovations generated by crowd-funded and open-source projects, such as Wikipedia, within our current system show that this isn’t just a pipe dream. Increasing their integral role through public subsidies supporting the further development of public digital infrastructure can alleviate some concerns surrounding public digital infrastructure.

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