‘We should take back the initiative in tech, as citizens’

Is the internet broken? Can we envision alternative ways of designing and organizing digital spaces, beyond the ad-tech driven spaces that are owned by a handful of billionaires? We spoke to Wouter Tebbens, who runs PublicSpaces. Read this interview to find out more about PublicSpaces and how they plan to change the system.

Is the Internet broken?

Yes, a lot has been broken from the original Internet, with the ideals we had in the 1990s. From John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace to the surveillance capitalism we have today, a lot has happened.

In my view, we now have the following problems: out of convenience, large parts of our infrastructure have been turned over to a few big players, like Microsoft and Google, so we are now really dependent on them for large parts of our lives. In addition, all the digital public spaces we use as citizens are completely read, documented and monitored by governments and corporations. So privacy is pretty much gone. And now you get artificial intelligence on top of that.

In the rise of those recent A.I. tools you see a lot of these problems coming together: yes there is innovation in digital technology, but every new invention immediately becomes a plaything of financialized capitalism: the big companies buy up everything. This creates a logic that is purely about profit, among tech providers and among users.

How could things be different?

You see that all these developments do not actually involve any public organizations, no governments, no libraries, no broadcasters, no civil society, no universities. Their role is small in this transformation, too small. We as citizens and collectives are not involved in the design of these technologies. We are handing it off before the tech is even rolled out at all. The people who are now on top of technology are hypercapitalists who want to become millionaires.

We should take back the initiative, as a public, as a government, as collective organizations. We should say together: we do want to determine how we set this up, we do want to get involved from the beginning. Not everyone will be keen on that at home, but note: those people also use Wikipedia now. So it’s for the benefit of all of us, and so we should all participate in this turnaround as well.

Wouter Tebbens – photo by Thomas Vilhelm http://www.thomasvilhelm.dk/

What’s bad about Musk buying Twitter?

We had the opportunity 20 years ago to collectively bet on the open, decentralized Web and we didn’t do it then. Thanks to Musk’s action, many people have realized that as a user of Twitter they are participating in a company that is trying to draw as much profit as possible from public discourse. And as a result, millions of users have switched to the fediverse. And that is very good news.

The fediverse is the so-called ‘federated universe’, a social network made up of different social networks that can all talk to each other. In it, you can exchange things with each other on all kinds of apps via a shared protocol, ActivityPub. From book reviews to movies to news. And then without advertisers wanting to follow you and analyze your behavior and resell the data about it. Thanks to that influx of millions of new users, there is now a blossoming of new ideas for the fediverse. The possibilities seem endless. And Musk has managed to do just that.

Should we actually offer an alternative for every harmful technology?

No, we at PublicSpaces work from the principles of data minimization and privacy by design. That means that we try to minimize data usage already in the design of the technology. That way you see that some functionalities that are not necessarily needed, are skipped from production. A simple example: if someone buys a ticket to a concert, do you need their gender identity for proper processing of their transaction?

How do you see the struggle in the tech domain evolving, from 20 years ago to now?

Look, 10 or 20 years ago I was very focused on tech as the crux of the problem and the solution. We insisted on working on Linux, for example. And our colleagues who were fighting for a more progressive copyright policy were in a different camp. And then there was the privacy movement, and so on. Every movement had its own bubble.

That is now – fortunately – all coming together, mainly because we are now using a single frame: the political economy of digital public space. Everything comes together in the frame of space: the values and norms of technology, how companies interact with their users, how ownership is organized and how revenue models play a role in this. So that’s definitely a win.

How does PublicSpaces fit into this?

PublicSpaces is a coalition of organizations working together to build an internet based on public values. We do that along three tracks, which connect to each other: 1) -the problem analysis, raising awareness and network building, 2) -facilitating the transition, by helping each other move forward, and 3) innovation: what else is needed to build that other Internet, and how can we move that forward through research and development?

We already have many of the necessary building blocks of a better internet. And PublicSpaces is trying to collect those and make them available to public and semi-public organizations, to bring that better internet within reach.

For example, we have the Digital Washing Room, in which participating organizations work with our team to reveal their digital footprint. With a questionnaire based on how well a particular tool meets the public values from our manifesto, you arrive at a score per tool used and an overall score for your organization. This provides insight and contributes to awareness within the organization. Where is the room for improvement in how people deal with harmful technology? Can we offer alternatives for this?

Can municipalities also become members?

Yes, we have a number of types of memberships. Coalition Partners are the core, which are the paying members who also have voting rights. Network Partners are a little more institutional, like Surfnet and the public broadcaster. The third category are municipalities, such as the City of Amsterdam. And thanks to a motion in the House of Representatives, ministries now are also joining as the fourth category of partners. This year sponsors will also be added, so that will be the fifth category, which will be more companies offering services based on public values.

What makes PublicSpaces unique?

I don’t really know any European organization like PublicSpaces. Our coalition is a perfect mix of institutional and societal, and the perfect combination of research and development, of awareness and participation. Central are public values and the transition to a digital ecosystem based on them. As a network, we help each other in that transition and try to collaborate with other networks and social movements.

Good to also mention here the PublicSpaces Conference, the highlight of the year. June 27 and 28 it will take place for the third time, in Amsterdam at Pakhuis De Zwijger, where we will once again take over the entire building. 400-500 participants will then spend three days together discussing the challenges of today’s technology, and what more we need to do to move towards the fediverse, for example. But also: how can we get our industry to think more about sustainability? And how can we make the Dutch movement for a different internet international as well? We have about forty sessions and artistic installations and performances and a bazaar of ethical providers. A fantastic happening!

Where will PublicSpaces be in 10 years?

By then we should have managed to ensure that schools in the Netherlands are no longer on Google Classroom. And that public debate will no longer be conducted on Big Tech platforms. By that time we must also have ensured that an alternative funding model exists, so that development of new tech within the public internet can be better funded. This also requires the release of funds from the government, both in the Netherlands and internationally.

In fact, the money is already there, but it’s a change in requirements: put public values first. This is what the Dutch government is now saying with their new value driven digitalisation agenda. We will also debate this during the conference with national and international speakers, both from civil society and politics.