2 September 2022

Can the internet serve the public?


This month, technology journalist and head of public value research at BBC R&D Bill Thompson joins Opencast for a talk on how the internet could be reimagined to support public good. Bill is part of the team creating the BBC's new North East Technology Hub in Newcastle – an initiative that Opencast is pleased to support. Here he offers a preview of his talk

Since its creation in 1983, the internet has developed in ways that naturally reflect the cultural, economic, and political perspectives of the people, companies, communities and governments who use, influence and control it.

Colour photograph of man with beard

Perhaps the internet’s very success can make it appear ‘perfect’ or ‘just the way it is’, but there’s nothing elemental about this complex collection of interconnected networks and how it has been used: it was created to work in a certain way and emphasise certain things, and the billions of people who use it every day have to live with the consequences of engineering, technical, and political decisions made throughout its history.

Unfortunately the network wasn’t developed with requirements of public service organisations like the BBC in mind, and as a result there are aspects of today’s network that make it harder to deliver public service outcomes than commercial ones - advertising is easy, creating safe online spaces for debate remains hard.

Fortunately, we can change the network if we want to.

In his book Code, published in 2000, Lawrence Lessig made the point that “code is law”: in other words, we can only do on the network those things that the network has been programmed to permit.

Unless there is an MX record for my mail server, that server will not receive external mail. Unless the packets my network interface sends are valid TCP, they will not be read or forwarded. The underlying code is the law, and also the judge and jury that puts that law into operation.

Imagining a better network

But the code is just code. If we can imagine a better network, then we can build it. And if we can persuade other people to use our code, then that network can become the network.

With this in mind the BBC, in common with other organisations concerned about the public good such as the Mozilla Foundation, PublicSpaces and the Open Data Institute, is exploring ways in which today’s internet can be re-imagined, changed, or perhaps even re-invented in ways that better support the delivery of public benefits and reduce its potential for harm.

We’re doing this because we believe it is part of our mission. The BBC was created in 1926 by government to deliver the benefits of the emerging communications technology of radio communication to the people. It did so, first with sound, then with sound and pictures.

For a century we have worked with others to shape the nature of broadcast technologies and support its ambitions – for greater image contrast range, for higher fidelity, for stereo, for colour, for more lines, for digital transmission, for more pixels, for more and more pixels.

Now we have a chance to do online what we have done over the air. Through industry collaboration and technical innovation we want to address fundamental issues with the underlying infrastructure of the internet in order to provide better support for online public service activities and deliver the BBC’s mission.

Public service stack

We want to create safe, open and inclusive digital public spaces by taking action in three areas, each a layer of what we call the public service stack (PSS).

The PSS is our working model of the different levels of the internet, comprising a lower layer concerned with standards and protocols, a middle layer which deals with design, UX, applications and services, and a top layer covering regulation and governance. This allows us to model the interaction between interventions and map the efforts made by the BBC and others to achieve the overall goal of a public service internet.

It is an intervention in the communications ecosystem that could be as significant as our work on radio in the 1920s or television in the 1950s: we have an opportunity to shape the network around our public service values, principles, and mission, and do so in a way that benefits all users of the network and determines the network’s long-term future.

Bill Thompson joins Opencast for an online lunch-and-learn talk on Tuesday 20 September from 12.15-1pm. To join the event register on Eventbrite now.

Bill Thompson

If we can imagine a better network, then we can build it. And if we can persuade other people to use our code, then that network can become the network

Andy McMurray, product owner, Opencast

So much of what we do at Opencast is about building products and services to make people’s lives better – whether through our public sector clients or in the energy and financial services industries. All of these products and services are powered by or connected to the internet. Having listened to Bill in an ethics debate, I’m excited that he’s joining us to challenge us in our thinking and lead a discussion about how better we can use the internet for good