The End of Techno-Utopianism

September 13, 2019

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia

The optimism over the future of democracy globally that dominated U.S. foreign policy circles in the early 1990s had a tech companion, similar to the neoliberal faith in markets.1 From the beginning and throughout the Internet’s first decades, its policy architects were sanguine about an open Internet being a quasi-automatically democratizing force. It would provide a voice for the voiceless and power to the powerless. Like the other parts of the story of democracy, the Internet’s role in free societies turned out to be murkier. Its open architecture allowed the Internet to become a global network that has fostered extraordinary innovation and empowered entrepreneurs, consumers, and political organizers. But along the way, some of the openness was lost and darkness crept in. Today, the Internet platforms provide too many opportunities for disinformation to corrupt democratic debate and online tools for deception are increasingly being weaponized by anti-democratic forces.

Large technology companies have come to dominate the online experience, constantly gathering users’ personal data, often without their knowledge, and feeding it through proprietary algorithms to curate search results, recommendations, and news. Propagandists and extremists wishing to conceal their identities fund targeted ads and create armies of social media bots to push misleading or outright false content, robbing citizens of a basic understanding of reality. And authoritarians take advantage of technology to censor information and suppress dissent. It is past time for Washington to overcome its techno-utopian belief that the Internet can fix itself and instead take active steps to ensure that it is a tool to strengthen, not undermine, democratic values.

The most commonly told origin story of the Internet starts with the brilliant young entrepreneurs who invented life-changing technologies from inside their garages. In reality, the early Internet received significant help from the U.S. government. It grew out of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a decentralized network created by the Pentagon that was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. The inventors of the Internet Protocol and the World Wide Web received government grants and support from government research labs.

The U.S. government aggressively promoted competition with the existing telecommunications network, a choice that allowed the early Internet to flourish.

In 1989 the first commercial dial-up provider offered access to the Internet and in February 1990 ARPANET was officially decommissioned, ending formal military involvement in what would soon be known as the World Wide Web. The U.S. government, however, continued to shape the Internet’s development through policy. In the mid-1990s, when the Internet was beginning to enter people’s homes and workplaces, the U.S. government aggressively promoted competition with the existing telecommunications network, a choice that allowed the early Internet to flourish. The Federal Communications Commission exempted Internet service providers, such as AOL, from paying the charges that long-distance carriers had to pay and implemented the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in a way that, for a few years at least, opened the regional phone companies up to competition, stimulating billions of dollars of spending on the deployment of broadband networks. When Congress passed the 1996 Communications Decency Act, it included a provision – Section 230 – that largely freed certain Internet companies from liability for third-party content posted on or moving across their networks or platforms. Combined with the decentralized design of the Internet, these policies promoted a medium that allowed users to exchange information freely.

The United States proselytized its pro-openness policy framework abroad. In 1997, Washington negotiated an agreement through the World Trade Organization that committed 67 signatory countries to “procompetitive regulatory principles” when it came to telecommunications, paving the way for the global Internet. And to set the rules of the road for the Internet, it endorsed a handful of “multistakeholder” organizations, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the domain-name system, and the Internet Engineering Task Force (which promotes technical standards). This framework promoted competition, provided new avenues for sharing information, and allowed the Internet to become a vibrant platform for free expression and innovation. The Internet seemed to be ushering in a new era of democratization and entrepreneurship. By 2011, it was being credited with causing the Arab Spring.

But by then, the Internet had changed greatly. Early on in its history, users communicated directly, and e-mail was the “killer app.” With the advent of the World Wide Web, users could easily generate and share their own content. But today’s digital platforms – including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter – use algorithms to organize the user experience. Social media companies earn more ad revenue the longer they can get people to spend on their platforms and the more narrowly they can target them, and so they have every incentive to gather as much data as possible and feed it into algorithms that optimize the content their users see.

At the same time, the offline world moved online. In a 2017 survey of Americans conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, respondents admitted spending an average of 24 hours a week online. Forty percent of them said they thought the Internet plays an integral role in U.S. politics, and 83 percent reported that they shopped online. Most of the relevant government policies were designed when the Internet was just a fringe part of people’s lives, but it has come to touch nearly every aspect.

News also moved online,2 with more people now getting it through the Internet than from television, as did advertising. As a result, print journalism’s economic model fell apart. Previously, when the future of news seemed in question, Americans publicly debated what role media should play in a democracy. Congress regulated growing forms of media, with the 1927 Radio Act and then the 1934 Communications Act requiring broadcasters to act in the public interest as a condition of their receiving licenses to use the public airwaves. Civil society joined the debate, too. After the Second World War, the Commission on Freedom of the Press, led by Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, concluded that mass media must be committed to social responsibility. And in 1967, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television issued a report on how to bring public broadcasting to U.S. households, spurring the passage that same year of the Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But when online news took off, no such examination took place.

In short, as the Internet grew more centralized and as its role expanded, policymakers failed to keep up. When it came to updating regulations for online activities – whether the matter at hand involved political advertising or privacy – the Internet was treated as a special realm that did not need regulation. And the bad guys took notice.

Digital Dictators

In the heady days of the Arab Spring, some observers believed the Internet gave dissidents a distinct advantage over their oppressors. But the despots largely learned to use the technology for their own ends. It turned out that even though social media and other technologies can help protesters, they can also help the state.

A 2018 report by Freedom House found that Internet freedom had declined globally for the eighth year in a row as China, Russia, and some Gulf states deployed a number of sophisticated methods for restricting access to online information and to communication tools. They have blocked virtual private networks, making it harder for users to evade censorship controls, and they have done the same with encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, robbing dissidents of the ability to organize confidentially. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has enlisted an army of paid online followers and bots to project an atmosphere of public enthusiasm and intimidate his critics. Sometimes, autocrats even get private companies to do their bidding. The Turkish government, in the midst of a crackdown on opposition since a failed coup attempt in 2016, forced Facebook to remove content. (Wikipedia left the country rather than edit or remove content.) And in some countries – notably China, Iran, and Russia – governments require that citizens’ data be stored in the country.

The most sophisticated effort comes from China, which, in addition to its Great Firewall, is developing a system of “social credits,” which takes the idea of a credit score to its creepiest extension. The idea is to aggregate information from public and private records to assess citizens’ behavior, generating scores that can be used to determine their opportunities for employment, education, housing, and travel. China is using facial recognition and vast data to exert control over the ethnic Uyghurs in western China in a high-tech update of the mass surveillance and societal control of East Germany’s Stasi and, before that, Hitler’s Germany.3

The United States has struggled to respond to the online authoritarian threat. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton championed an Internet freedom agenda to empower dissidents. The State Department devoted tens of millions of dollars to programs aimed at enhancing Internet access, fighting censorship, and creating technologies to circumvent controls. And in 2016, it established the Global Engagement Center, which was charged with coordinating efforts to counter propaganda spread by states and non-state actors alike. All the while, the tools for surveillance and control have grown more sophisticated.

Hacking democracy

Not only has the Internet been used to strengthen authoritarian states; it has also been used to weaken democracies.4 As detailed in the indictments issued in February by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives created fake online personas aimed at spreading false information. For example, a Twitter account by the name of @TEN_GOP purported to represent the Tennessee Republican Party and posted a steady stream of content supporting Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. In fact, it was run by the Internet Research Agency, an organization linked to the Russian government that is responsible for online influence operations. A particular goal was to depress African American turnout in order to hurt Clinton’s campaign. As an investigation by CNN found, one social media campaign called “Blacktivist” was actually a Russian troll operation; it had more “likes” on Facebook than the official Black Lives Matter page.

Those who organize disinformation campaigns on social media exploit commercial data-gathering and targeting systems. They sweep up personal data from a host of sources across different devices and categorize people by their behavior, interests, and demographics. Then, they target a given segment of users with ads and bots, which encourage users to like pages, follow accounts, and share information. In this way, disinformation campaigns weaponize digital platforms, whose algorithms seem to reward outrage because that is what keeps users engaged. As the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has found, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steers viewers toward increasingly radical and extremist videos.

To be fair, the big tech companies have begun to wake up to the scale of the problem. After the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was found to have collected the personal information of 87 million Facebook users for use in political campaigns, CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in Congress that Facebook would extend worldwide the controls it is implementing to satisfy the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. (But the company’s removal of non-European data from European servers, which puts the information out of reach of EU regulators, raises doubts about his commitment.) By January 2018, Twitter had publicly identified 3,814 accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency and estimated that approximately 1.4 million people may have been in contact with those accounts. The scale of the challenge facing Facebook, as it tries to clear “bad actors” from the system, is staggering. Richard Allan, the company’s vice-president for public policy, said it had taken down 2.8 billion fake accounts between October 2017 and November 2018.5 All these companies have taken steps to increase transparency when it comes to who has paid for a particular political ad. There are also the cases of sites like InfoWars – a conspiracy theory site that has propagated the idea that school shootings are hoaxes and their victims “crisis actors” – which Facebook has allowed to operate a page with over 900,000 followers. After almost of year of controversy, Facebook finally removed the real accounts of InfoWars and its director Alex Jones in May.

There is no federal agency charged with protecting U.S. democracy in the digital age, and so the only cops on the beat are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Election Commission.

Once again, public policy has not kept up. There is no federal agency charged with protecting U.S. democracy in the digital age, and so the only cops on the beat are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The FTC is charged with the wide-ranging task of consumer protection and lacks sufficient staff and authority to address most of the challenges specific to the weaponization of the Internet. The Obama administration proposed an update to privacy laws that would have given the FTC more power when it comes to that issue, but Congress never took it up. And, although a draft of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act contained a provision to give the FTC rule-making authority, this was stripped out before the bill passed. The FEC, for its part, is perpetually stalemated along partisan lines, just as it was in 2014, when a vote regarding whether to require transparency in online political advertising ended in a deadlock. For the most part, the government has left it to individuals and digital platforms to design their own defenses, and they are falling short.

Intervention For Openness

Even though public policy played a large role in enabling the creation and growth of the Internet, a mythical, libertarian origin story arose, which fed the belief that the Internet is so open that regulation is unnecessary – indeed, that government is like Kryptonite to the Internet. This was also a convenient narrative for opponents of regulation, who fought updating rules to fit the online world for economic or ideological reasons. But Washington must act now to prevent the further weaponization of the Internet against democracies and individuals attempting to exercise their human rights – and to do so without sacrificing democratic values such as freedom of expression. The history of the Internet’s founding offers the right model: intervention on behalf of openness.

To help tilt the balance against autocrats, the U.S. government should fully fund and staff the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which was leaderless until early 2019, so that it can coordinate support for activists abroad and counter disinformation and extremist content. Washington should also continue to support the efforts that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other broadcasters, is making on this front, including developing tools that help dissidents get online and backing the fact-checking website

There are also ways to reduce the opportunity for so-called dark money and dark data to undermine democracy. Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act, a bill proposed in October 2017 that would apply television’s rules on disclosing the funding behind political advertising to the Internet. Despite being a bipartisan bill, it has yet to make it out of committee. Platforms should be required to insist that entities buying political ads provide information on their donors, as well – and to verify the identity of those donors and disclose that information publicly in a sortable, searchable database. In order to deal a blow to microtargeted disinformation, Congress should borrow from Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation: organizations should be required to treat political and philosophical data about users as sensitive information – so that it cannot be collected and then used to target political advertising without express permission. Users should also have more data rights, such as the ability to take their data to another platform or use it interoperably.

Digital platforms should find a way to offer users more context for the news their algorithms present. They might do so through some method of differentiating those news outlets that follow accepted journalistic practices (customs such as having a masthead, separating news from opinion, and issuing corrections) from those that do not. The platforms should be required to take down fake accounts and remove bots unless they are clearly labeled as such. The largest social media companies – Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – need to be transparent about their content-moderation rules. Regulation might even require certain platforms to provide due-process protections for users whose content is taken down. And a narrow change to Section 230 could eliminate immunity for platforms that leave up content that threatens or intentionally incites physical violence.

Change must come from the top. President Trump himself repeatedly refuses to acknowledge Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, despite the clear findings of the intelligence community. In May 2018, the National Security Council eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator and handed the portfolio to a deputy with many other responsibilities. That decision should be reversed, and foreign information operations should be treated as seriously as cyberattacks are. And at the international level, Washington should promote its approach through multilateral organizations and provide technical assistance through the World Bank.

What is needed is U.S. leadership. The European Union has begun to create policy responses, but the United States is needed to force a redesign of the online public square – and to build consensus around new international norms for the use of technology. The Internet would never have become such a transformational technology were it not for openness – a quality that was inherent in its design, but also nurtured by government policies. But over time, those policies did not keep up with changes in technology or the way it was used. The victims of this lag have been those who initially benefited the most from the Internet: democracies, champions of freedom, and ordinary citizens.

It is time for them to take back the Internet. The United States is uniquely positioned to assume the lead in this task. As the promoter of the key early policies and the home to many of the largest Internet companies, only it can drive the development of a framework that ensures the openness and transparency necessary for democratic debate without harming innovation. But if the United States shirks its responsibility, it will further empower the adversaries of democracy: revisionist states, authoritarian governments, and fraudsters bent on exploiting the Internet for their own, dangerous ends.

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1 This essay is adapted from “The Internet’s Lost Promise” in Foreign Affairs, (Vol 97, Nr. 5, September/October). Copyright (2018) by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

2 Pew Research data shows that almost as many people now get their news from the Internet as from television.

3 Alvar Freude and Trixy Freude, “Echoes of History: Understanding German Data Protection,” October 1, 2016, Bertelsman Foundation.

4 For more on this see Laura Rosenberger’s article in this collection.

5 The Guardian, “Inside Facebook’s War Room: The Battle to Protect EU Elections,” May 5, 2015,