The Public Square Project

The case for building public digital infrastructure to support our community and our democracy
by Jordan Guiao and Peter Lewis

In recent times, online platforms like Facebook have usurped core aspects of what we expect from a public square. However, Facebook’s surveillance business model and engagement-at-all-costs algorithm is designed to promote commercial rather than civic objectives, creating a more divided and distorted public discourse.

This discussion paper aims to initiate a focused discussion around the type of digital infrastructure we want to power our public square.

Recent polling from The Australia Institute has shown that Australians believe Facebook has too much power (57%) and are ready to see better alternatives (61%).1

Looking at different research, as well as analysing the trajectory of alternative social networks reveal that Facebook’s continued role in our information ecosystem is not a given, and that new ideas are developing which proposes new ways of connecting online.

In re-imagining a new public square, this paper proposes an incremental evolution of the Australian public broadcaster, centred around principles developed by John Reith, the creator of public broadcasting, of an independent, but publicly-funded entity with a remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ citizens.2

This new public square will be underpinned by three pillars designed to serve democratic and community interests:

• Communities around existing content where the public can gather around topics of shared interest in a safe, respectful and surveillance-free environment

• Community generated content where the public can create and share their own content and contribute to engaged communities of interest

• Community input into government where the public can have meaningful exchange with government to better inform decisions that impact on them.

Addressing considerations around the technical, cultural, political, and operational elements of building this new network, this paper proposes what is feasibly needed to build such a public social platform.

Over time, these pillars would support a publicly funded civic platform that would be:

• driven by public interest algorithms and ethical network designs

• supported by passionate public community builders

• integrated with government service delivery

• supportive of a vibrant and independent media ecosystem

The Centre for Responsible Technology is seeking feedback from engaged stakeholders on this discussion paper who would like to participate in developing this project further.

Full report