How is the Internet exacerbating inequality?

The fact that Internet access is still viewed as a luxury in many corners of the world is amplifying and entrenching existing patterns of inequality. The development of the Internet, which could be tremendously empowering for people—providing a level playing field, basically lowering barriers to entry for finding new jobs, new ways of making a living, new ways of achieving dignity in the 21st century—is, in fact, very unequal in its availability across the world and often constrained by very powerful actors. We may just be making things worse unless there’s a changed relationship between civicness and the presence of unlimited capacity—and by that I mean cheap, ubiquitous network assets.

I see these things really tied together. It’s part of public works these days, part of what makes for a civic life. It’s like a street grid, a place where people walk, open businesses, make money for themselves. These days the street grid equivalent is unlimited communications capacity. I keep saying “unlimited” because that’s what fiber optics access really is and, in many countries, that is the baseline—everybody gets access at low prices. But it’s not true in the U.S. and not true in places like Germany and other places that are seeing inequality and a vanishing middle class.

I am concerned that at the federal level we keep making the wrong decisions. I’m hopeful, though, that cities will be places where mayors and others will see their obligation to provide this basic street grid—see it as part of the civic fabric of their communities. And not just for democratic participation but also for reasons of economic growth and social cohesion.

What does the battle over net neutrality and an open Internet mean for the public?

In the past, the U.S. stood alone in always having relied on private companies to sell communications, but we always burdened them with public-facing obligations. And today, we have the worst of both worlds: We have a wholly private marketplace and no public obligations.

I’m not pushing for a publicly owned infrastructure necessarily. I think we have two choices with all these monopolies around us. We could either try to constrain them using words—but that’s like keeping a lion from going after a gazelle—or we could build around them and facilitate networks that are based on public conduits or physical infrastructure but that are not actually operated by the public.

Can we expect the market to regulate itself and safeguard the “street grid”?

The regulatory ideal is that it unleashes human empowerment. By limiting the animal instincts of companies, we make greater social goods possible. But I think in the absence of those rules, it is absolutely in companies’ interest to just increase their profits. It’s not that they’re evil; it’s just that that’s the way we’ve set up the landscape.

For me, it’s not up to the companies to come up with that. It’s up to the public to figure out the background—the level playing field, the organizational structure, the tapestry, whatever it is—against which companies operate. And everybody needs to do their job: With a Congress whose members can’t say good morning to each other and regulatory authorities that are afraid of political blowback and leadership that worries only about getting reelected, nobody has the long-term view in place. So everybody’s short-term instincts kick in and that leads us to the situation we find ourselves in today.

When it comes to basic dignity, like having a thriving life, that’s not really the role of the market. The market is there to allocate resources and ensure that goods of the highest quality are provided and that things get distributed among members of society. That feels to me like an entirely different role from the one that has to do with dignity and civic trustworthiness.

You mentioned cities as being places of hope. What difference can they make?

I made a long trip to northern Europe recently, and there the cities—not the national government—provide a broad range of services. Things like child care and elder care. All of that makes for a very trusting, open, curious, inventive, free atmosphere that leads to people feeling as if they have a voice, that their actions have an effect on their environment, that something they build today won’t be wiped out by graft and corruption tomorrow.

My big theme these days is having an unlimited communications capacity in place that goes hand in hand with lots of other steps that local government can take to broaden its relationship with citizens so as to thicken democracy and make people trust local government more.

How can philanthropy help?

Helping local government build its capacity to revise procurement rules, fix civil service and make government work better would be a useful role to play because then you’d see payoffs in the form of those background conditions. And in the end, by nudging the nonprofit sector or the private sector to fix things—that will lower the need for philanthropy to fill gaps.

We’ve got real issues of 19th-century structures getting in the way of government playing this larger civic role. That needs real policy change. Technology can’t do it by itself.