We need a state-owned platform for the modern internet
by Jimi Cullen (@jiim_e) on September 8, 2018



In a recent speech on the media and its future, Jeremy Corbyn raised the notion of ‘a public social media platform with real privacy and public control over the data that is making Facebook and others so rich’. Others have responded that we don’t need state-owned social media, we need decentralised social media, which anyone can own.

Regulation to enable new, freer forms of social media might be a good idea. But to truly have the freedom to control the way we use the internet, we should look at nationalising the infrastructure that powers much of it. In particular, we should think about a publicly owned and run cloud services provider.

What is “the cloud”?

You might first think of Dropbox or Google Docs (or a fluffy thing in the sky) when you read the word cloud. Cloud services host and process your data on computers somewhere else, communicating with your local computer over the internet when required. Cloud services don’t stop there - major and minor internet services and sites, including AirBnB, Uber, and my blog use cloud platforms not just to store data, but also to conduct vast, demanding computations.

Scientists are increasingly using cloud platforms to crunch their data, too. These platforms are incredibly flexible. If a cancer researcher needs to process thousands of scans, they can rent an enormous amount of computing power from a cloud provider for just the hours needed to do the processing. The latest tech is always available, the scientist doesn’t need to maintain the hardware themselves on-site, and when they’re done it’s available for someone else to rent and use.

The government uses the cloud, too. In fact, it has promoted a ‘cloud first’ policy since 2013, encouraging government departments to use cloud services for their computing needs where feasible. The UK government spends hundreds of millions of pounds on cloud-related costs each year, the bulk of which goes to large American private companies, especially Amazon (via its AWS - Amazon Web Services - platform) and the UK government’s preferred option, Microsoft (via its Azure platform). These companies, whose founders’ names are often the top two on the list of the world’s richest people, make a lot of money from AWS and Azure - AWS has been described as Amazon’s ‘cash cow’. Amazon’s notorious tax practices have not stopped the UK government from embracing AWS, sometimes causing the demise of smaller businesses closer to home.

Time to nationalise?

There are a number of dangers in the concentration of ownership of internet infrastructure in Silicon Valley. One danger lies in the dependence on private companies which have become ‘too big to fail’. Something about over a trillion US dollars resting on a single point of failure reminds me of the megabanks of ten years ago which were too large to fail gracefully without causing massive economic damage. Not to mention our reliance on the services they provide (another parallel of the financial crash) - relatively minor AWS outages have taken down Instagram and prevented people from using their thermostats. If unforeseen global or market conditions suddenly make AWS a bad business prospect, it could cause massive damage worldwide.

These companies are, of course, also unaccountable to those of us who depend on them - we can’t vote Jeff Bezos out if his mismanagement of AWS starts causing us problems. We are weak in the face of his company sucking up millions in government contracts and paying the least in tax and wages that they can get away with.

A national cloud platform would be more dependable, economically efficient, and accountable. A platform that we, as the public, own and control would be more resilient to market conditions and the whims of an American billionaire. Instead of granting money to scientists who spend it on Amazon-provided computing power, we can directly allocate publicly owned computing power to public-benefiting research, improving access, saving money, and simplifying the process. And as flawed as the democratic tools in our hands are, we have a much greater say over the running of public services than we do over the running of Amazon or Microsoft.

Education, education, education

Beyond making it a public service, we should invest in empowering more of the public to actually use the service. Platforms like AWS and Azure have put internet technologies into the hands of many who would have struggled to access them before the web became overcast by cloud technologies, and their free entry-level tiers make it easy for individuals to see their ideas take life on the internet. Still, the number of people who currently have the requisite knowledge to use these cloud platforms is very small, and it’s a group with limited demographic diversity. A publicly-owned cloud platform could form the backbone of a government-funded programme to widen technology education, by integrating a certain amount of always-free access to the platform into an initiative to teach the skills required to use the platform. Such a programme could be delivered via schools, public libraries and other community-focused institutions, with the goal of truly democratising control over this technology in a way that breaks down the economic barriers that currently prevent so many from acquiring the necessary skills.

Opening up access to these platforms could also foster an ecosystem of decentralised social networks and other key internet services. Anyone would be able to spin up a server for themselves, for free, on a platform designed to serve their needs, not to tempt them into becoming paying customers. Augmenting the public’s capacity to create their own services could be part of a larger strategy to challenge the dominance of today’s tech monopolies.

The international challenges

Of course, difficulties arise when applying the concept of nationalisation to something like the internet, which is inherently transnational in scope. Most public services - for example, publicly owned social housing - are local by their nature. They represent physical buildings with a fixed geographical location, defining who has access to them. One of the great benefits of cloud computing infrastructure is that the physical location of the hardware is mostly irrelevant. Reconciling the existing local or national models of public services with the inherently global nature of the internet raises questions and opportunities. Who can access such services, when location is no barrier? If access to the platform will be differentiated for UK citizens or residents, how would this be regulated and enforced? And what access would be available for private companies - is it desirable or possible to treat UK and foreign, or multinational, private companies differently in this case?

One model would be for the body to function as a public service for UK local authorities and individuals, but as a commercial body for others. This might be similar to how Deutsche Bahn, which is fully owned by the German state, operates railways as a public service in Germany, and also operates railways in the UK as a commercial contractor (through its Arriva subsidiary). The problem with this approach is that to a passenger in the UK, Deutsche Bahn is as unaccountable as any other private company. German passengers own their railways and vote for a government with some power over the body running them - but in the UK we would hardly notice if DB were replaced by Amazon.

Another possibility involves partnerships between states. Some states don’t have the resources or expert workforce to run a national cloud service, but by contributing tax collected in each state they may be able to jointly fund and run shared public services. Some neighbouring local authorities in the UK link up to jointly provide local services (e.g. rubbish collection). Untethered from physical restrictions, an internet infrastructure partnership could be made between countries anywhere in the world. Iran and Cuba, both countries from which AWS can’t be used due to US sanctions, could share a cloud infrastructure in this way. There would still be open questions over access for people and organisations from countries outside the partnership, but those could be addressed further down the line.

Free as in freedom

Cloud platforms are just one example of the problematic concentration of tech power in the US private sector. Last year, Iranian app developers saw their apps - their sources of income, their means of ordering a taxi or some food, the plumbing of their 21st century lives - removed from Apple’s App Store under sanctions re-enforced by the Trump government. Later, Apple started blocking all traffic to the App Store from Iran. Like the cloud, people around the world are increasingly dependent on smart phone technology and infrastructure. The story in Iran is for another article, but among the many points we can take from it, we can find motivation to take ourselves out of the grip of American private tech companies.

I am all for putting social media into more accountable hands, as Jeremy Corbyn has proposed. I am all for taking it into the hands of social media users through interoperable distributed platforms (toot me on Mastodon!). But without owning the infrastructure that it depends on, we are still vulnerable to the problems of private American monopolies. So let’s figure out new models for public services in the tech-heavy world of the 21st century. Let’s take control of the tools and materials from which we can forge those better platforms, so the power and benefits belong to us, not to Jeff Bezos and pals.


author

Jimi Cullen (@jiim_e)

Jimi Cullen is a freelance writer. They write on politics, economics, LGBT and Jewish topics, and the science and culture of orgasm.

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