If you could choose one thing from the internet to share with the world, what would it be?

Here comes the internet, world.
Here comes the internet, world.
Image: AP Photo/NASA
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Imagine, for a moment, a very different world.

Imagine if, suddenly, all of North America, South America, Europe, Oceania, Japan, South Korea and South Africa lost their internet access. How far back would such a loss set humanity? Those areas encompass many of our technological advancements, institutions of higher learning, and investment dollars in growth and new business. Together, they account for roughly 2.1 billion people.

But, as you read this article online, 4.3 billion people lack internet access.

So, once again, imagine a very different world. While we can contemplate the Walking Dead-esque negative shift in human growth that would take place if the plug were pulled on the places that have internet access, can we even imagine the opposite? Can we imagine the forward push we would experience if twice that number of people came online? What quantum leap forward would humanity take if, suddenly, everyone could access the information those of us with internet take for granted? Such a shift in the opposite direction would be truly monumental—and it is about to happen.

Outernet, the company I work for, announced today that it turned on a test signal from satellites that will broadcast the information from the internet to the entire world, for free. During the test phase, that information will be broadcast from existing geostationary satellites to a few regions (North America and Europe, Middle East, North Africa, which was decided via vote) and accessible via user-built receivers that can be assembled using widely available, cheap components. The receivers will then broadcast the information over a Wi-Fi signal to any Wi-Fi enabled device, creating an “offline internet” of the content the receiver has collected and continues to collect. Outernet encourages users to innovate in creating the best and cheapest receivers possible, even to potentially create businesses around building and selling them locally.

To understand how it works, think of a radio signal from space sending BitTorrent files, which assemble one complete file from multiple users. In the case of Outernet, those multiple users are the multiple overhead passes of a satellite or multiple satellites. Once a user has a receiver, they will receive a constant stream of data that will be assembled into files on their local device (the BitTorrent side). They will receive the entire stream of data and the user can keep what they want. So, if for example you decide you only want content in Hindi, you will still receive the universal signal for all files in every language but your device will ignore non-Hindi files. In 2015, Outernet will broadcast from its own fleet of Low Earth Orbit cubesats to the entire globe and the signal will be even easier to access.

That signal will be a one way broadcast of data from the internet. It won’t quite be the internet—which is a means for two-way communication—but Outernet will allow for the benefits of information access to be consumed unidirectionally. Essentially, this amounts to the construction of an enormous free digital library. Which leads to an important question: when all one can do is listen, who decides what is said? Who stocks the shelves of this library?

The Voice of the crowd

Largely, the response of Outernet has been that content would be “democratically chosen” —voted on in a Reddit fashion so that the limited bandwidth can be allocated according to the will of the masses. This seems intuitively correct at first glance, however there are a few reasons why this can be problematic.

First, applying a democratic philosophy to an inherently un-democratic landscape will produce rogue results. The user base of Outernet is presumed to be unplugged, so if this is their first touchpoint to free information, then there is no established way to “vote” for content. We therefore encounter an imbalance of information. Since there will be no perfect way to construct a pathway for the poorest of the world to request data, the vote share globally will be skewed towards those with more wealth.

We certainly want to avoid a system where the rich are telling the poor what they should read or, by extension, the West telling developing countries what content is best. Yet, in some ways this is just unavoidable due to what is available.

This is exacerbated at both ends of the vote: those who are voting and what they are voting on. Consider France, a country with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the lowest. Libraries are not built overnight: a colonial legacy of poverty coupled with very low literacy and access to education, among many other variables, has meant that, even though their populations are nearly identical, there just haven’t been as many Congolese making films or writing books over the last two centuries. Similarly, the enormity of nations like China compared to its neighbor Mongolia, for example, mean there are that many more Chinese works for this global library and more Chinese to vote on stocking the shelves with them. And this isn’t purely national: there are more Christians than Muslims in the world and they tend to be wealthier—does this mean a more Christian-slanted library? There must be a mechanism to counter this volume game blotting out more minority intellectual contributions.

Second is what I would call “community sensibilities.” We must recognize that a globally uniform information broadcast will run up against resistance due to what different cultures and communities deem to be decent. Let’s use pornography as our example: it is largely seen as indecent and yet one of the most popularly voted uses of the internet if we consider pageviews to be the equivalent of ballots. Should Outernet broadcast it? What about something like the specifications for a 3D printable weapon? Who writes the standards? All these things are available on the internet, yet making them available on Outernet could be more tricky. It is a subtle difference, but in a broadcast model all information is pushed to users from the source and then the user has to discern, whereas, with the internet, the user has to proactively seek content.

This could lead to an image problem. People may say, “Have you heard you can get porn anywhere in the world for free from space?” rather than extolling the objectively positive uses for the service. If a minority of the service’s more controversial offerings become synonymous with the entire service, it could foster skepticism of Outernet and inhibit user uptake in more conservative areas of the world.

Similar to how rumors of World Health Organization workers being spies hurts the larger goal of vaccination, Outernet would be dismissed before being tried. This will be true whether the line is drawn at porn or at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in the United States, or if there is no line drawn at all.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a larger question: do we even trust ourselves to choose our own content? Wikipedia, which allows anyone who can access it to be an editor, is famously discouraged by editors and professors alike for being cited as a credible source. When asked, several editors from across genres ranked it consistently low and an MIT Technology Review article described its debatably undemocratic cumbersome editing process. Yet, anyone would be hard pressed to argue that the world is not improved by Wikipedia’s existence.

Who watches the watchmen?

What would happen if the New York Times or any major reputable publication turned over their content sourcing to the crowd? Would you still read them with the same sense of credibility? We have long ago accepted that some people are better at deciding what information we should read than we are, even though the same philosophy in other realms of our lives is viewed through a skeptical, sometimes “socialist” lens. Any editor strives to present information in an unbiased manner, but there is an unavoidable selection bias in how something is written or, even larger, what is written about at all. Especially when it comes to creating a constantly streaming digital library, the problem would arise in what is omitted from broadcast.

An editorial board could be more efficient in navigating content and making decisions, yet it would lose out on exposure—there are too many places with too many different kinds of works that may be worthy of broadcast. You would have the discrepancies resulting from those who are experts in history versus current events, differences in geography, language, cultural tradition, religion, subject matter, age, etc. On a global scale, those variables (plus many others) have so much variance that an editorial board would necessarily miss a large amount of material, even with hundreds of members.

Figuring out the answer for how to curate this library is a large part of my job. It is daunting but, much more so, it is exciting. What is required for it to be done to the general satisfaction of Outernet’s global constituency is that it be discussed and transparent. In almost every arena of our lives, we accept that there are restrictions governing our behavior, but as long as we understand why they exist and how they were created, we generally accept them. This is akin to the discussion surrounding net neutrality—it needs to be thrown into the commons and debated.

We are on the cusp of an enormous upheaval in the global information access hierarchy – let’s build it together. I welcome your feedback.