Fantasy image of people being connected from different locations

Democratizing the Internet: Platforms, Pipes, Possibilities

April 7, 2023 9:15am-5:30pm
  • Annenberg School for Communication, Room 500
Audience Open to the Public

What does an internet for the people look like?

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WiFi: AirPennNet-Guest

The internet is in crisis. From algorithmically fueled misinformation on Facebook to communities abandoned by large internet service providers, the tension between the profit interests of digital monopolies and the public interest is now at a breaking point. Another internet is not only possible, it is necessary.

In recent years, a diverse array of thinkers have begun to envision a more democratic communications system—from the pipes that connect us to the internet to the platforms that distribute news and information. The Democratizing the Internet conference brings together this burgeoning group of scholars and activists to ask: what are the structural forces that have brought us to this critical juncture in the history of the internet? What would a digital media system that privileges the public good over private profits look like? And how do we get it?


Light Breakfast (9:15am – 10:00am)

Opening Remarks by Victor Pickard (10:00am – 10:15am)

Panel 1: Pipe Dreams: Policy Interventions for Democratizing Internet Infrastructure (10:15am – 11:45am)

Over the last twenty years, hundreds of communities across the United States have taken it upon themselves to build their own high-speed broadband networks. This panel explores the democratic potential of municipal broadband: do these networks prefigure a more democratic communications order, or are they destined to be localized correctives to a broadband market otherwise dominated by telecom monopolies? What critical lessons can we draw on from successful municipal broadband initiatives such as Chattanooga’s effort to provide high-speed internet to all of its citizens? What can we glean from failed municipal broadband rollouts such as Philadelphia’s in the early 2000s?

Moderator: Sydney Forde
Panelists: Chris Ali, Sascha Meinrath, Revati Prasad, Hannah Sassaman

Headshots of Panelists

Lunch (11:45am – 1:00pm)

Panel 2: Platforms in Crisis: Social Media In/After Platform Capitalism (1:00pm – 2:30pm)

From Facebook’s surveillance advertising to Elon Musk’s chaotic reign over Twitter, the social media ecology that emerged in the 2010s is now crumbling. The age of corporate social media may be reaching its tragic denouement. This panel considers the structural roots of the social media crisis: what are the political and economic factors that brought us to this point? What role can government regulation and antitrust policy have in making platforms more accountable to the public? Beyond efforts to reform Silicon Valley tech giants, how might we use this moment to create social media platforms that serve the needs of a multiracial democratic society?

Moderator: Lauren Bridges
Panelists: Sarah J. Jackson, Charlton McIlwain, Nathan Schneider, Sandeep Vaheesan

Headshots of moderator and panelists

Coffee Break (2:30pm – 2:45pm)

Panel 3: Imagining a Post-Commercial Internet (2:45pm – 4:15pm)

Until recently, to speak of the internet after capitalism was anathema. However, as the fog of neoliberalism recedes from our political imagination, new visions of a truly democratic internet are ascendent. The final panel of this symposium looks at how the hyper-commercialized internet came into being and what we must do to build on the germinations of a democratic internet already in existence. With the commercial internet failing and alternatives struggling to be born, what politics are needed to create an actual public internet?

Moderator: Sanjay Jolly
Panelists: Matthew Crain, Ramesh Srinivasan, Moira Weigel, Ethan Zuckerman

Headshots of moderator and panelists

Break: (4:15pm – 4:30pm)

Keynote Speaker: (4:30pm – 5:30pm)

The technologies of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. How do we wake up from the nightmare? More specifically: how do we take a technological inheritance that has been engineered for war-making, empire, racial domination, and capital accumulation, and fashion it into something that sustains solidarity and self-determination? Is such a thing even possible?

Introduction: David Elliot Berman
Keynote: Ben Tarnoff

Headshots of moderator and panelist

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