Several decades into our experiment with the internet, we appear to have reached a crossroads. The connection that it enables and the various forms of interaction that grow out of it have undoubtedly brought benefits. People can more easily communicate with the people they love, access knowledge to keep themselves informed or entertained, and find myriad new opportunities that otherwise might have been out of reach.
But if you ask people today, for all those positive attributes, they’re also likely to tell you that the internet has several big problems. The new Brandeisian movement calling to “break up Big Tech” will say that the problem is monopolization and the power that major tech companies have accrued as a result. Other activists may frame the problem as the ability of companies or the state to use the new tools offered by this digital infrastructure to intrude on our privacy or restrict our ability to freely express ourselves. Depending on how the problem is defined, a series of reforms are presented that claim to rein in those undesirable actions and get companies to embrace a more ethical digital capitalism.
There’s certainly some truth to the claims of these activists, and aspects of their proposed reforms could make an important difference to our online experiences. But in his new book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future, Ben Tarnoff argues that those criticisms fail to identify the true problem with the internet. Monopolization, surveillance, and any number of other issues are the product of a much deeper flaw in the system.
“The root is simple,” writes Tarnoff: “The internet is broken because the internet is a business.”
Internet for the People takes readers on a journey through the history of the internet and its problems. But at the core of Tarnoff’s analysis is the question of privatization: how it happened and what consequences it has had for the infrastructures and services that have become virtually inescapable.
The book takes us through a series of key moments in the development of the internet: 1969, when the publicly owned Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the first public computer network that became a forerunner to the internet, went live for the first time; 1976, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) linked two networks for the first time in pursuit of its goal to “bring the mainframe to the battlefield”; 1983, when ARPANET switched over to the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), the communications protocols that are used in the internet and various computer networks, which were foundational to the modern internet; 1986, when the National Science Foundation launched the NSFNET (National Science Foundation Network), a national public backbone network that allowed more people — researchers, in particular — to use it to communicate.
At each of these stages, Tarnoff explains why the government was essential to allowing these developments to take place in a way that the private sector could not, embracing an “open source ethic” that went against “the commercial impulse to lock users into a proprietary system.”
Take the protocols that allow these various networks to communicate with one another and eventually produced TCP/IP. “Under private ownership, such a language could never have been created,” writes Tarnoff. The basic research work was not only incredibly expensive, but there was no obvious means to make a profit from it. Indeed, DARPA even offered AT&T the opportunity to take over ARPANET. AT&T refused; it couldn’t see a viable business model.
After all of this investment, the internet underwent a radical transformation in the 1990s. For Tarnoff, it was the decade when “the internet abruptly died, and a different one appeared.” As more and more people got on online, businesses finally started to see in it the opportunity to make a lot of money, but the NSFNET’s Acceptable Use Policy forbade commercial activity. In an era of neoliberal hegemony, that could not stand.
Regardless of the internet’s global potential, decisions about its governance were to be made in Washington, DC. Among House speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republicans and President Bill Clinton’s Democrats, the path forward was clear: the internet had to be privatized.
The fateful date was April 30, 1995. The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), the public backbone of the internet, was shut down and the infrastructural side of the internet ceded to private companies. Tarnoff describes the event as the product of a “false choice” dictated by industry, one where the options were framed as the preservation of “the system as a restricted research network or to make it a fully privatized mass medium.” At a moment when trust was being placed in “the market” through a broad agenda of deregulation and privatization, business and political elites wanted us to believe that there was no alternative.
Even though 1995 can be seen as the moment of privatization, Tarnoff positions it as the beginning of a process that started with privatizing the pipes of the internet then went up “the stack,” borrowing the industry’s own terminology. It should come as no surprise that the Clinton administration and other mid-1990s power players argued that privatization was the only path to achieve a better internet, one that was cheaper to access and spurred innovation. Yet the outcome of that privatization was something quite different.
The United States now pays some of the highest prices in the world for some of the worst internet service, as the deregulated and consolidated telecommunications oligopoly controls most people’s access. Meanwhile, the modern tech monopolies — companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon — are making a big push into the infrastructural side of the internet, as they buy more of the undersea cables that link up the world. Tarnoff argues that as they build “vertically integrated empires that control both the pipes and the information inside them, they are remaking the internet remade by the 1990s into an even more privatized form.”
The reorientation of the world wide web to serve the business needs of these companies above its users is the other side of this equation. The dot-com boom was the moment when this process began, as new companies were seeking the means to extract profit from what we did online. They’ve been massively successful.
We often call the services offered by these companies “platforms,” but that’s a term Tarnoff rejects. It allows them to “present an aura of openness and neutrality” — when they’re actually shaping what we do for their benefit. Tarnoff instead calls them online malls, private spaces that appear public, in which we’re brought together in service of generating profit for the company that controls it.
Tarnoff expertly charts how this process of pushing privatization up the stack unfolded, looking at the contributions of key companies like eBay, Google, and Amazon at various stages to establish the model of the online mall, expand the infrastructure of the cloud, turn the process of data-making into a lucrative business, and push the internet beyond the home or the desk to many aspects of society.
Rather than fulfilling the libertarian utopian dreams of the 1990s, those developments have had terrible effects: providing new means of exploiting marginalized people, enabling a new wave of right-wing radicalization, and helping create an even more unequal world. Addressing those issues requires getting to the root of the problem: the privatized internet has failed us.
While privacy legislation and antitrust measures could have some positive effects, they don’t go far enough. “A privatized internet will always amount to the rule of the many by the few,” writes Tarnoff, and since that tendency is hardwired into capitalism itself — not just a certain iteration of capitalism — fixing the internet requires a different strategy: deprivatization. But what that looks like is still up for debate.
Rather than lay out a concrete plan for a deprivatized internet, Tarnoff explains that experimentation will be key. The future he envisions is one where technology takes on a very different character; where it changes from “something that is done to people, and becomes something they do together.” Instead of waiting to see what Google or Amazon hand us, technology is produced by communities and collectives to serve very different needs and ends. Yet that doesn’t mean Tarnoff leaves us with no map of the path we could take.
On the infrastructural side, Tarnoff shows a clear preference for the community-owned networks that have been proliferating across the United States, even as they’ve faced opposition from the telecom oligopoly. These networks tend to deliver better service at lower cost, while prioritizing community needs over those of major corporations’ shareholders.
Meanwhile, on the services side, Tarnoff takes aim at the “bigness” incentivized by the need to produce returns for the difficulties they create for self-governance and the negative social interactions they promote. Instead, he presents a model of a “protocolized” social media with a proliferation of small communities that can interact with one another and where public funding is available for media.
The internet has long been surrounded by a libertarian idealism, despite always failing to deliver on those ambitions, and many of the ideas for a better internet take on a preference for decentralization. Since Tarnoff relies on existing ideas to outline how a deprivatized internet could function, his vision can also be seen as taking on some of those qualities. Yet in his discussion of community networks, he notes that decentralization isn’t an inherent good, as it can be positioned by some digital rights activists and tech libertarians.
“Decentralization is not inherently democratizing: it can just as easily serve to concentrate power as to distribute it,” he writes.
Ultimately, a deprivatized internet will require different solutions for different aspects of the network. In some cases, they will show a preference for decentralization, while in others a regional or national approach will be required.
As Tarnoff told me in a recent conversation, “You cannot fully decentralize the internet, nor can you fully centralize the internet. The question is always: what do you want to decentralize and what do you want to centralize?”
By reframing the debate over the internet not around surveillance, speech, or monopoly, but around the deeper and more fundamental process of privatization, Internet for the People encourages us to think more expansively about how a different kind of internet could function and who it could serve. At a moment when the future of the tech industry seems to be more in question than at any time in recent memory, that’s a conversation we desperately need to have.
True to form, Nothing has just announced the full reveal date for its upcoming audio product, Ear (stick).
So, an announcement about an announcement. You’ve got to hand it to Carl Pei’s marketing department, they never miss a trick.
What we’re saying is that although we still have ‘nothing’ conclusive about the features, pricing or release date for the Ear (stick) except an image of another model holding them (and we’ve seen plenty of those traipsing down the catwalk recently), we do have a date – the day when we’ll be granted official access to this information.
That day is October 26. Nothing assures us that on this day we’ll be able to find out everything, including pricing and product specifications, during the online Ear (stick) Reveal, at 3PM BST (which is 10AM ET, or 1AM on Wednesday if you’re in Sydney, Australia) on nothing.tech (opens in new tab).
Any further information? A little. Nothing calls the Ear (stick), which is now the product’s official name, “the next generation of Nothing sound technology”, and its “most advanced audio product yet”.
But that’s not all! Apparently, Ear (stick) are “half in-ear true wireless earbuds that balance supreme comfort with exceptional sound, made not to be felt when in use. They’re feather-light with an ergonomic design that’s moulded to your ears. Delivered in a unique charging case, inspired by classic cosmetic silhouettes, and compactly formed to simply glide into pockets.”
Opinion: I need more than a lipstick-style case
Nothing Ear (stick) – official leaked renders pic.twitter.com/FrhKmRttmiOctober 1, 2022
Aside from this official ‘news’ from Nothing, leaked images and videos of the Ear (stick) have been springing up all over the internet (thank you, developer Kuba Wojciechowski) and they depict earbuds that look largely unchanged, which is a shame.
For me, the focus needs to shift from gimmicks such as a cylindrical case with a red section at the end which twists up like a lipstick. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of theater, but only if the sound coming from the earbuds themselves is top dog.
See, that lipstick case shape likely will not support wireless charging. That and the rumored lack of ANC means the Ear (stick) is probably arriving as the more affordable option in Nothing’s ouevre.
For now, we sit tight until October 26.
Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.
You might soon have to buy YouTube Premium to watch 4K YouTube videos, a new user test suggests.
According to a Reddit thread (opens in new tab) highlighted on Twitter by leaker Alvin (opens in new tab), several non-Premium YouTube users have reported seeing 4K resolution (and higher) video options limited to YouTube Premium subscribers on their iOS devices. For these individuals, videos are currently only available to stream in up to 1440p (QHD) resolution.
The apparent experiment only seems to be affecting a handful of YouTube users for now, but it suggests owner Google is toying with the idea of implementing a site-wide paywall for access to high-quality video in the future.
So, after testing up to 12 ads on YouTube for non-Premium users, now some users reported that they also have to get a Premium account just to watch videos in 4K. pic.twitter.com/jJodoAxeDpOctober 1, 2022
It’s no secret that Google has been searching for new ways to monetize its YouTube platform in recent months. In September, the company introduced five unskippable ads for some YouTube users as part of a separate test – an unexpected development that, naturally, didn’t go down well with much of the YouTube community.
A resolution paywall seems a more palatable approach from Google. While annoying, the change isn’t likely to provoke the same level of ire from non-paying YouTube users as excessive ads, given that many smartphones still max out at QHD resolution anyway.
Of course, if it encourages those who do care about high-resolution viewing to invest in the platform’s Premium subscription package, it may also be more lucrative for Google. After all, YouTube Premium, which offers ad-free viewing, background playback and the ability to download videos for offline use, currently costs $11.99 / £11.99 / AU$14.99 per month.
Suffice to say, the subscription service hasn’t taken off in quite the way Google would’ve hoped since its launch in 2014. Only around 50 million users are currently signed up to YouTube Premium, while something close to 2 billion people actively use YouTube on a monthly basis.
Might the addition of 4K video into Premium’s perk package bump up that number? Only time will tell. We’ll be keeping an eye on our own YouTube account to see whether this resolution paywall becomes permanent in the coming months.
Axel is a London-based staff writer at TechRadar, reporting on everything from the newest movies to latest Apple developments as part of the site’s daily news output. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion.
Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned a gold standard NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.
USB-C has come a long way since its debut in 2014, now becoming the standard for charging and basic data transfer (on everything except the iPhone, of course!) as well as audio and video for more and more devices. The European Parliament, long enamored with the idea of a consumer- and environmentally-friendly standard for charging devices, is pushing it forward even further. A newly-passed law says that almost all portable electronics will need to charge via USB-C by 2026.
At this point, most new laptops already use USB-C charging, taking advantage of the standard’s flexibility to deliver a range of wattages up to 100 watts. There are two exceptions: the top of the market and the bottom. Cheap budget laptops are still sometimes equipped with less expensive, semi-proprietary barrel charging cables or something like Lenovo’s rectangular charger.
On the other hand, power-hungry laptops that need more than 100 watts still use proprietary connections for their massive adapters. The USB Implementers Forum is working on expanding that limit and some of these laptops can still charge slowly over USB-C. These are the only laptops that Europe will allow to be sold with proprietary chargers after the spring of 2026. While nothing forces manufacturers to follow this new law worldwide, streamlined manufacturing and economy of scale will effectively force the rest of the world to follow in practice if not in legislation.
Parliament posted its reasoning online (spotted by Windows Central), saying that this move will encourage technological innovation and give consumers access to more interoperability with a bonus that more easily-reusable cables and chargers means less electronic waste. The post estimates that it will help consumers save up to 250 million euro a year on new charger purchases.
The bigger news is that this move is likely to finally force Apple to abandon the Lightning connector for the iPhone, cheaper iPads, and a few lingering accessories. (Apple already uses USB-C charging on most iPads and all Macbooks.) The switch for smaller mobile devices will happen by the end of 2024. This includes “all new mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers, e-readers, keyboards, mice, portable navigation systems, earbuds and laptops that are rechargeable via a wired cable.” (Note: This technically creates a loophole for any device that recharges via wireless only.) That should give laptop manufacturers plenty of time to flush out the remaining old-fashioned chargers from their assembly lines.
Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.