Internet Governance and the Good Life

Madhavi Sunder’s thought-provoking new book, From Goods to a Good Life, creates an opportunity to rethink many areas of global knowledge policy, including how the Internet’s technical architecture is governed. Global Internet governance is often viewed through the lens of technical expediency and innovation policy, especially concentrating attention on the international institutions that coordinate critical Internet resources and infrastructure.  Sunder’s book provides a refreshing theoretical basis for shifting this frame to place culture and human rights at the center of Internet governance debates.  Technologies of Internet governance, although concealed in technical complexity and generally outside of public view, are the new spaces determining some of the most important cultural freedom issues of our time.

Sunder’s book suggests the technological features necessary for participatory culture to thrive. Some of these include many-to-many interactivity, amenability to manipulation and revision, and an architecture that shifts cultural production from the top-down hierarchical control of popular media to a distributed system in which cultural creation can reside at endpoints.  As Sunder explains, “This open architecture facilitates democratic resistance to dominant cultural discourses.”

Some trends in Internet governance are discordant with these crucial features. Internet governance control points are neither legal control points nor are they confined within nation-state boundaries. They are often manifested through the design of technical architecture, the decisions of global institutions of Internet governance, and through private business models.

I’ll offer a few Internet governance questions with implications for the future of participatory culture. The first is the evolving, behind-the-scenes architecture of online advertising practices. Relinquishing information about ourselves, consciously or not, is the quid pro quo bargain for free culture. The companies that operate platforms supporting distributed cultural production obviously require massive annual operating budgets. They provide free distributed products (e.g. YouTube, social media, blogging platforms) but are supported by online advertising models predicated upon the centralized collection and retention of data (contextual, locational, behavioral) about individuals that use these products. The removal of material barriers to cultural production is predicated upon these information goods, which are in turn predicated upon the hidden and mechanized monetization networks that support them. Information collected about individuals routinely includes unique hardware identifiers, mobile phone numbers, IP addresses, and location as well as content and site-specific information. In what ways will these evolving practices eventually constrain participatory culture and human freedom? There is a cultural disconnect between the perception of online anonymity and the actuality of a multi-layered identity infrastructure beneath the layer of content.

A second Internet governance trend potentially agonistic to the future of participatory culture is the turn to the Domain Name System (DNS) for intellectual property rights enforcement. The DNS has always served a clear technical function of translating between the alphanumeric names that humans use and the binary Internet addresses that routers use. Right now, the authoritative Internet registries that resolve these names into binary numbers are already being asked to enforce trademark and copyright laws, essentially blocking queries from websites associated with piracy. If this practice expands to ISPs and other DNS operators (as SOPA/PIPA seemed to propose), what will be the collateral damage to free expression and participatory culture?

Finally, an emerging Internet governance challenge to participatory culture is the trend away from interoperability. The ability to exchange information regardless of location or device is a necessary ingredient for participatory culture. Some social media approaches actually erode interoperability in several ways: lack of inherent compatibility among platforms; lack of Uniform Resource Locator (URL) universality; lack of data portability; and lack of universal searchability. In all of these cases, standard approaches are available but companies have explicitly designed interoperability out of their systems. Cloud computing approaches seem to be lurching away from interoperability in a similar manner. These trends concentrate control and intelligence in medias res rather than at end points. These centralized and proprietary approaches mediated by gatekeepers are what the market has selected but this selection has consequences for cultural as well as technical interoperability.

Madhavi Sunder’s book is a reminder to think about these architectural and economic shifts with attention to their effects on participatory culture and to engage public input into these debates.

It might not be immediately obvious how issues as varied as essential medicines, viral Internet videos, and technical architecture are connected to each other and to human liberty. Drawing from theorists as diverse as Durkheim, Foucault, and Habermas, From Goods to a Good Life convincingly makes this connection.  Congratulations to Professor Sunder for so insightfully helping us to connect issues of intellectual property and human freedom across diverse areas of global knowledge policy.

Dr. Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor, American University in Washington, D.C.

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