Winter 2016

As the Pirates Become CEOs: The Closing of the Open Internet

Zeynep Tufekci

The early Internet witnessed the flourishing of a digitally networked public sphere in which many people, including dissidents who had little to no access to mass media, found a voice as well as a place to connect with one another. As the Internet matures, its initial decentralized form has been increasingly replaced by a small number of ad-financed platforms, such as Facebook and Google, which structure the online experience of billions of people. These platforms often design, control, influence, and “optimize” the user experience according to their own internal values and priorities, sometimes using emergent methods such as algorithmic filtering and computational inference of private traits from computational social science. The shift to a small number of controlling platforms stems from a variety of dynamics, including network effects and the attractions of easier-to-use, closed platforms. This article considers these developments and their consequences for the vitality of the public sphere.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI is Assistant Professor at the School of Information and Library Science, with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Sociology, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of Beautiful Tear Gas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protests in the 21st Century (forthcoming 2016) and coeditor of Inequity in the Technopolis: Race, Class, Gender, and the Digital Divide in Austin (with Joseph Straubhaar, Jeremiah Spence, and Roberta G. Lentz, 2012). She is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.

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