Democratizing resources is not a one-size-fits-all activity. You can occupy land (though at some point, you might be violently expelled from it); you can steal game and ginseng, take water that isn’t legally speaking yours.
But the internet isn’t like that. It’s not a natural resource; quite the opposite, though of course it is made from natural resources. But the content itself, the signals transmitted between homes and data centers….insofar as anything created by humans and made by earthly materials is not natural, it is not natural.
Let’s explore its history for a minute:
The creation of the internet was preceded by other forms of data transmission: telegrams, for instance, and phones, where two places were connected by means of electronic data transmission. However, these means of communication were not secure and could be easily disrupted. Eventually the US Department of Defense developed a system called ARPANET, which was designed in the Cold War era as a surveillance tool that could outlast a nuclear war and improve the ease and speed of military decision-making. This is the uncomfortable truth behind a lot of the technology we use. Combustion, electronic communication, flight - large technologies are developed by the state, in conjunction with private industry, on the backs of the global working class, often to wage war and hoard resources that in turn go back into the technologies themselves. Copper, silicon, gold, silver. Coal, oil, gas, rubber. These were taken from indigenous people on stolen land, these made people sick and are still making them sick. They power my laptop and my phone and the data centers and factories that make them possible.
These are all difficult realities we counted with when working on rural broadband. It isn’t possible with things as they are to wash your hands entirely of pain and anguish. We can try to be good and try to be ethical, but ultimately, if we hang back and try to make everything perfect, our dreams never become reality. I’ve seen this happen in the places I work in: discussion upon discussion upon discussion, always hampered from action by the perfect blocking concern. Years and years of it, and not one person’s life changed. And then I ask, what is ethical? To tweak everything until it works the way we want it to, or to take action and then learn from experience?
There are troubling questions about every piece and parcel of organizing work. What we are doing is affecting people’s lives, or hopes to, and often we must be careful not to make promises that we cannot deliver. In my experience, communities are often more hurt by lack of action than by wrong action - the sense that you came and promised and left, without leaving a trace or a trail to follow; that you did not talk about your work to the community, did not include them in it, and when it predictably fell apart, you went on to other things.
This said, and I am speaking for myself but hope I am speaking to experiences shared by other organizers, there is no such thing as perfect work. There just isn’t. There is the doing and the not doing, the trying and the not trying. The internet’s roots are in unholy and awful realities, but people need it to do anything in the world as it stands right now, to reduce the harm that capitalism inflicts upon them. To fight for a free and open internet is to damage the power of corporations like AT&T and Comcast and the Silicon Valley tech lords, and we can also make anti-colonialism a part of our work so that we can explore many kinds of liberation at once. We did not choose the world we were given, but we can choose to grow and learn from our circumstances, We choose to do the work as kindly and thoughtfully as we can, but we have to go forth and do it, to craft and create with the tools we have, in hopes that someday there can be new tools to work with.