The Case for Public Digital Infrastructure

By David Freid

What do the lockout of Russian civilians from using their Visa and MasterCard credit cards tied to the SWIFT system, 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 4th amendment concerns related to warrantless intelligence agency data collection all have in common? The answer is, in large part, an extreme centralization of online services and digital infrastructure concentrated in the hands of private digital service operators.

These issues impacting our globe-spanning digital infrastructure could have been headed off, and similar future crises avoided, if the development of our digital infrastructure were to have happened with a robust systems approach with the public good as its goal. Instead, its development has emphasized centralized systems seeking maximum efficiency and control. For this vital digital infrastructure, the public, unaware of much of what goes on behind the scenes in its construction, has been convinced that their best option is to trade ease-of-use and convenience for its long-term stability. This trade-off occurs when the strength of the digital infrastructure systems the public relies on is impacted by the move fast and break things, first-to-market mindset of Big Tech; which coincidentally weakens internal quality controls. These decisions are commonly framed as a binary between privacy and ease-of-use, however, these two demands of digital infrastructure are not mutually exclusive.

One possible solution to this set of deeply integrated problems plaguing our modern economic system is the concept of Public Digital Infrastructure. Within this framework, our society as a whole would invest much more heavily in the development of its digital infrastructure and, consequently, would reap more of its benefits without being held under surveillance capitalism’s extractive profit motive

Surveillance capitalism and its luminaries are described in detail in Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” In her book, she describes how private companies grew to operate as surveillance intermediaries, a concept which is expanded upon and described by Alan Rozenshtein. This proposed shift would also appropriately credit governments, who have historically funded the development of digital public infrastructure on which these private services rely, as detailed in “The Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato. These, among other works, are what I drew upon to form my argument.

Part 1: An Introduction to 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 and platforms. These private online service providers represent the evolution of privatized mass communication infrastructure into a purely digital space. The fashion in which they have developed can be attributed to a particular set of economic imperatives and ideologies, mainly imposed upon them by institutional investment priorities. Because of the private control of these important online service providers, decisions impacting large swaths of the global population generally occur outside of the public’s input with little regulatory oversight. Their decisions reflect the ideology of a select group of individuals at the top of these corporations, as well as the investment firms that offer them the large amount of capital required to construct such apparatuses. Consequently, they are generally beholden to the demands of shareholder profit maximization over many other socially conscious considerations. Had their economic imperatives been different from the start, the products they would have produced would be quite different from today’s toxic online surveillance-based platforms, with cascading effects throughout our digitally interconnected society.

For example, in the United States, the growth and consolidation of this privatized digital services industry was inadvertently supported by statutes such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Due to a court case decided before such surveillance-based algorithmic platforms existed, Section 230 provided liability cover for these companies not to moderate the content on their sites. A National Security-Big Tech nexus was then solidified when the lax content regulation and the platform’s profit-driven engagement incentives were coupled with laws such Section 215 of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 and Section 702 of the US PATRIOT Act of 2001. These laws forced online service providers to act as part of the US national security agency’s intelligence collection apparatus. Though the point of this paper isn’t to explore this complex nexus of law, politics, technology, and economics, much of the tension between the general public, privacy advocates, online service providers, and the government lies within this realm. It should be mentioned to frame any debate about shifting power in this space.

What is Public Digital Infrastructure?

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

Private Digital Infrastructure

Private digital services, which operate as private digital infrastructure, are wholly owned by private entities and used to generate profits for their owners and shareholders. Private entities provide services and, in many cases, the digital and physical infrastructure for other businesses to operate in a digitally connected business environment. Companies implementing a digital infrastructure can ease business activities, such as accounting, and provide frictionless consumer experiences for ordering and payments. Private digital services include things like Google Search, Facebook or Instagram business pages, the SWIFT global banking system, point of sale systems, internal networking systems, customer relations management tools, and many other services and tools that 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 processing credit card payments, subscription fees, ad placement fees for better spots in searches, and paying for services that provide security for customer data. These services, which customers now expect, drive up the cost of doing business, resulting in a higher bar of entry for small entrepreneurs and rising costs for consumers.

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 digitized business infrastructures. This reliance on privately owned services, especially the purportedly free ones for the end user, adds 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 service outages can significantly impact the ability to conduct business, resulting in a loss of revenue. But for certain services, especially business pages on social media and for credit cards, businesses have few options outside of these private digital infrastructures due to the concentrated 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, whose development was largely funded by public taxpayer dollars. Digital public infrastructure refers to the set of digital tools, technologies, protocols, and standards that have enabled the ability to provide and receive digital services to citizens and businesses alike. Much of this digital infrastructure’s development has come from cooperation between the US government, its military, national security interests, and private corporations.

Digital public infrastructure includes open data standards, interoperability frameworks, common protocol standards, and APIs that enable various digital services to communicate with each other. Things like Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) using public-key infrastructure (PKI), which enables much of the internet’s security encryption, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), which enables email, as well as the Global Positioning System (GPS) are all considered digital public infrastructure. The evolution of the World Wide Web (WWW) and the internet protocol (TCP/IP), for example, comes from the US’s development of ARPANET and NSFNET in concert with corporations such as Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), AT&T Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and other research institutions, such as Stanford, that were later able to commercialize the technologies for private profit. The US government also played a vital role in the establishment of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for managing the domain name system (DNS), as well as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is responsible for the assignment of IP addresses to domain names. 

Though these protocols are considered public infrastructure because of who may have access to them, the governance of these critical parts of the digital world is a complex arrangement of governments, private organizations, and technical experts. These highly technical organizations require massive amounts of cooperation between vastly different parties with high levels of expertise. Still, it is crucial to imagine systems of governance where a different set of priorities may assert themselves.

Public Digital Infrastructure

To imagine an alternative universe where the public good is emphasized, we must change the fundamental mindset of the actors within this space through altering their incentives. One way to accentuate public interest is through more significant public investment and accountability in developing digital infrastructure. Doing so would shift the economic and social incentives for those involved in the decision-making process.

Public digital infrastructure refers to digital infrastructure owned, operated, and managed by governments or, more importantly for my later arguments, by open-source expert organizations. This arrangement would channel development to the benefit of society outside of a profit motive. Public digital infrastructure includes essential digital and physical services such as affordable and guaranteed access to stable broadband internet, e-government portals, open source 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 mixed with the involvement of government actors, I argue, that through the emergent properties of the Internet, online communities and non-profit organizations with high levels of expertise, can lead the development and maintenance of our public digital infrastructure with little involvement by government actors.

The success and innovations generated by crowd-funded and open-source projects such as Wikipedia within our current system show that this is more than a pipe dream. Increasing support for these kinds of community led projects through public subsidies will support the further development of public digital infrastructure. And when coupled with insights of data-rights advocates, can help alleviate some concerns surrounding public digital infrastructure. I will expand on this argument in part two of The Case for Public Digital Infrastructure, where I will give examples of how digital infrastructure could be developed with a consumer and citizen-focused mindset, which greatly differs from what we have now. I will also suggest how we can support the development of privacy-first public digital infrastructure by providing examples I find essential to understand the need for such a shift, hopefully imparting how important it is to seriously support the development of public digital infrastructure.

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