Opinion | The Internet Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?

Fortunately, there is another strategy: deprivatization.

To build a better internet, we need to change how it is owned and organized — not with an eye toward making markets work better, but toward making them matter less. Deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people, and not profit, rule. This sounds like a protest chant but I mean it quite literally.

What would a day on the deprivatized internet look like? You wake up, grab coffee, and sit down at your computer. Your first stop is a social-media site run by your local library. The other users are your neighbors, your co-workers, or residents of your county. There’s a news report in your feed about a coming municipal election, published by a local public media center. In fact, much of the content that circulates on the site comes from public media sources.

The site is a cooperative; you and the other users govern it collectively. You elect the board that designs the filtering algorithms and writes the content moderation policies that determine what you see in your feed. The board’s decisions are carried out by employees of the local library, who act as caretakers of the community, always on hand to help classify, curate and add context to information.

This is in stark contrast to Facebook, whose advertising-based business model requires the company to maximize user engagement for profit, which in turn makes it a haven for sensationalist propaganda that drives clicks. Deprivatized social media could optimize for a different set of goals.

Your site might be small, but it’s not isolated. It connects with others to form a broader federation, using the same basic principle as email. (For instance, Gmail and Yahoo Mail are distinct services with distinct features, but users can still exchange messages.) Similarly, you can read posts from, and trade messages with, users from other sites and networks around the world. Your community’s governance is local, but its reach is global. It is a self-organized cell within the wider body of the internet.

What about your data? As you click the links in your feed and are transported to other corners of the web, you can be confident that your privacy is secure. That’s because the rights to your personal data are held by a cooperatively owned data trust.

You and the other members get to decide under what conditions an online service has access to your data, and under what conditions more data can be created. For instance, your trust might choose to ban the sort of sweeping surveillance that is so integral to online advertising.