Once upon a time, the internet was pretty awesome. Now it is horrible. Can it be made good again? We're about to find out.
The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Monday that the federal government is going to investigate America's biggest tech firms for antitrust violations: The Justice Department will examine Apple and Google, while the Federal Trade Commission will scrutinize Facebook and Amazon. This is not just a Trump administration effort, though. Democrats in the House of Representatives are also planning an antitrust probe.
Disgust with Big Tech, it turns out, is bipartisan. In our polarized age, that may sound like a good thing. But in fact, this is a dangerous moment. Republicans and Democrats, naturally, have different ideas about what "good" internet will look like. The GOP, led by President Trump, wants to make tech companies more friendly to his political allies; he believes that occasional efforts by Facebook and Twitter to rid themselves of bots, racists, and disinformation campaigns hurt his political prospects. Democrats, on the other hand, aim to make the internet better for consumers, competition, and democracy itself. One of those visions — the latter, to be clear — is better than the other.
"It's getting worse and worse for Conservatives on social media!" the president grumbled — via Twitter of course — last month.
On the flip side, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said this week that "there is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications."
Whichever vision prevails, it seems likely that big changes are coming to the internet, and soon. To understand why that is so, it is worth considering how far the internet has drifted from the hopes of its early days.
Back then — in the mid-to-late 1990s, especially — the internet was lawless and liberated all at once. Yes, it had been created by the government, but the decentralized nature of "the web" promised the makings of a libertarian paradise, offering individuals the opportunity to circumvent government and big corporations to collaborate, create, and exchange new ideas that would benefit society at large. "Information wants to be free!" was something people said without a hint of irony.
There were even successes, of a sort, in those early days. During a series of revolutions around the world between 2009 and 2011, Twitter proved indispensable in helping grassroots activists organize, communicate, and press their cases in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt. While those rebellions had varying levels of triumph, they seemed to augur a new era of democratic activism enabled primarily by new technologies.
The optimism didn't last.
A decade later, the internet looks very different. Order has been imposed. The rich guys — Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook — have moved in, cleaned things up, made a ton of money, and created a veneer of respectability. Meanwhile corruption lurks. Disinformation is rampant and may be altering the course of our elections; the big companies stifle innovation and competition by crushing startups or buying them outright; social media is designed to be addictive; tech firms make money by using math to exploit our worst impulses. Don't even get me started on what Google and Facebook have done to very nearly kill off local newspapers across the country.
The internet does not feel like a realm of liberation anymore. It feels, at best, like a necessary burden.
It is also not going anywhere: The internet plays an integral role in our commerce, our work, even the way we entertain ourselves. But Big Tech companies can — and probably should — be required to serve the public good more than they currently do.
Which brings us back to the competing visions of Republicans and Democrats. What Trump wants doesn't require Big Tech companies to change all that much — they can probably buy him off by reinstating a few people, like conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, and letting him do his worst again. Making the internet more hospitable for truthful information and for market competition, on the other hand, will require dramatic action, like breaking up big firms, or regulating them like utilities. That is a more difficult task, but it is also the route more likely to produce good results for the public at large.
The future of what we used to call cyberspace is suddenly and dramatically up for grabs. It is probably too late for the internet to achieve the hopes and aspirations of its earliest users. But the antitrust investigations being mounted by the White House and Congress may offer the best chance to create an alternative to the dreary status quo created by the current crop of Big Tech firms.
Let's just hope the better vision prevails.