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15 November 2019

Labour’s promise of free broadband is a reminder of the internet’s true history

Despite the myth of market rule, digital technology has always relied on state investment. 

By Hettie O'Brien

The internet seemed good at first. We’d dial up modems to the flickering sound of distant connections and scroll through clunky squares of clashing fonts. Because there were so few search engines, we asked Jeeves. On a suite of primary school monitors in ICT class I slowly punched out the individual letters for Yahoo with chubby fingers, marvelling that one of my classmates already knew what a “search engine” did. 

Today, being online is like stepping into a pixelated snowstorm that fluctuates hot and cold. The internet has compressed distance, but it has also distorted our sense of scale, amplifying small incidents with the volume of crashing waves and rewarding the salacious and short-term. The internet economy is one of platform companies, private power, deepening wealth inequalities and weakening labour protections; politically, it has played a part in spreading misinformation and fragmenting universal truths. 

What would a better internet look like? There isn’t a straightforward or single answer, but one suggestion has arrived today from Labour, which pledged to provide free fibre-optic broadband to every household and business in the United Kingdom. The party estimates that the pledge, which would see BT’s broadband arm nationalised, would cost £20.3bn to implement and £230m a year thereafter to maintain. The policy would make broadband a right rather than a commodity, guaranteeing access to UK households and bringing ownership of the network under public control. 

It represents a rupture with the notion that the private sector is best placed to innovate. The internet’s early cheerleaders were the product of a male, Californian worldview that fused the New Left counterculture of the 1960s with a right-wing, anti-statist economics. They coalesced around Wired magazine and believed in the web’s meritocratic potential to create a Jeffersonian cyberspace where individual liberty and market libertarianism would triumph. Contemporary platforms today benefit from this free-market mythos.

In reality, though, the internet has always relied on state funding. Arpanet, the packet-switching network that was founded in 1969 and proved formative to the modern web, was funded by the US Department of Defence. Minitel, a 1980s French public-sector internet, was an open space of chatrooms, games and electronic messaging pioneered in Saint-Malo with terminals distributed by local authorities. Both show there was no such thing as a pure “free market” for the technologies and innovations that formed the basis of the modern web. 

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As my colleague Stephen Bush has pointed out, Labour’s policy is appealing because the web is inextricable from life. Our friendships, families, communities and workplaces rely upon the broadband cables that coarse through cities and are laid beneath the sea. The internet is an infrastructure of modern life, as necessary as motorways or phone lines; you need it to file tax returns, apply for Universal Credit or find somewhere to live. Online access has become a prerequisite for survival at a time when libraries and job centres with free internet are disappearing.  

Labour’s policy has been labelled “broadband communism” by detractors. But a longer and more detailed look at history shows that although the policy is costly, it is not as radical as it first seems. In the early 1990s, British Telecom began work on a six-year project to replace outdated copper cables with fibre-optic alternatives and built two factories to manufacture components. That contemporary Britain lacks fibre-optic broadband is the result of Margaret Thatcher’s decision in 1990 to halt BT’s rollout, deeming it anticompetitive due to the company’s monopoly over the technology. Today, the consequences of this decision are clear: the UK lags behind other countries for broadband speed, and generous packages of state aid have been made available to the private sector in an effort to incentivise companies to deliver broadband in rural areas.

The logic of market competition, where an array of providers bid for contracts and ostensibly deliver a better service, is at odds with large-scale, interconnected infrastructures like broadband. Fibre-optic cables need to be laid en-masse and depend on economies of scale. More generally, markets don’t provide people with what they need, but rather with what they can afford to pay for. Leaving the provision of goods that are essential for human flourishing to the market results in vast inequalities and, in the case of broadband, invariably patchy coverage. 

The history of experiments like Minitel show the internet has always relied, in part, upon the state. But these histories also point towards alternative models that exemplify a radical and hopeful vision: an equitable, decommodified internet.