The Turn to Infrastructure for Internet Governance

Drawing from economic theory, Brett Frischmann’s excellent new book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford University Press 2012) has crafted an elaborate theory of infrastructure that creates an intellectual foundation for addressing some of the most critical policy issues of our time: transportation, communication, environmental protection and beyond. I wish to take the discussion about Frischmann’s book into a slightly different direction, moving away from the question of how infrastructure shapes our social and economic lives into the question of how infrastructure is increasingly co-opted as a form of governance itself.

Arrangements of technical architecture have always inherently been arrangements of power. This is certainly the case for the technologies of Internet governance designed to keep the Internet operational. This governance is not necessarily about governments but about technical design decisions, the policies of private industry and the decisions of new global institutions. By “Infrastructures of Internet governance,” I mean the technologies and processes beneath the layer of content and inherently designed to keep the Internet operational. Some of these architectures include Internet technical protocols; critical Internet resources like Internet addresses, domain names, and autonomous system numbers; the Internet’s domain name system; and network-layer systems related to access, Internet exchange points (IXPs) and Internet security intermediaries. I have published several books about the inherent politics embedded in the design of this governance infrastructure.  But here I wish to address something different. These same Internet governance infrastructures are increasingly being co-opted for political purposes completely irrelevant to their primary Internet governance function.

The most pressing policy debates in Internet governance increasingly do not involve governance of the Internet’s infrastructure but governance using the Internet’s infrastructure.  Governments and large media companies have lost control over content through laws and policies and are recognizing infrastructure as a mechanism for regaining this control.  This is certainly the case for intellectual property rights enforcement. Copyright enforcement has moved well beyond addressing specific infringing content or individuals into Internet governance-based infrastructural enforcement. The most obvious examples include the graduated response methods that terminate the Internet access of individuals that repeatedly violate copyright laws and the domain name seizures that use the Internet’s domain name system (DNS) to redirect queries away from an entire web site rather than just the infringing content. These techniques are ultimately carried out by Internet registries, Internet registrars, or even by non-authoritative DNS operators such as Internet service providers. Domain name seizures in the United States often originate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. DNS-based enforcement was also at the heart of controversies and Internet boycotts over the legislative efforts to pass the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA).

An even more pronounced connection between infrastructure and governance occurs in so-called “kill-switch” interventions in which governments, via private industry, enact outages of basic telecommunications and Internet infrastructures, whether via protocols, application blocking, or terminating entire cell phone or Internet access services. From Egypt to the Bay Area Rapid Transit service blockages, the collateral damage of these outages to freedom of expression and public safety is of great concern. The role of private industry in enacting governance via infrastructure was also obviously visible during the WikiLeaks CableGate saga during which financial services firms like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard opted to block the financial flow of money to WikiLeaks and Amazon and EveryDNS blocked web hosting and domain name resolution services, respectively.

This turn to governance via infrastructures of Internet governance raises several themes for this online symposium. The first theme relates to the privatization of governance whereby industry is voluntarily or obligatorily playing a heightened role in regulating content and governing expression as well as responding to restrictions on expression. Concerns here involve not only the issue of legitimacy and public accountability but also the possibly undue economic burden placed on private information intermediaries to carry out this governance. The question about private ordering is not just a question of Internet freedom but of economic freedom for the companies providing basic Internet infrastructures. The second theme relates to the future of free expression. Legal lenses into freedom of expression often miss the infrastructure-based governance sinews that already permeate the Internet’s underlying technical architecture. The third important theme involves the question of what this technique of governance via infrastructure will mean for the technical infrastructure itself.  As an engineer as well as a social scientist, my concern is for the effects of these practices on Internet stability and security, particularly the co-opting of the Internet’s domain name system for content mediation functions for which the DNS was never intended. The stability of the Internet’s infrastructure is not a given but something that must be protected from the unintended consequences of these new governance approaches.

I wish to congratulate Brett Frischmann on his new book and thank him for bringing the connection between society and infrastructure to such a broad and interdisciplinary audience.

Dr. Laura DeNardis, American University, Washington, DC.

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