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Book Review: Laura DeNardis (2014). The Global War for Internet Governance. New Haven, CT and London : Yale University Press.
By Francesca Musiani
The final draft of Laura DeNardis’s most recent book, officially released on January 1st, 2014, had most likely been finalized before Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the pervasive surveillance implemented by the U. S. National Security Agency entered the media spotlight, which explains the absence of direct references to the controversy throughout the 300-page volume. Yet, because of the Snowden revelations and a number of other issues addressed thoroughly in this extremely important book - from WikiLeaks to the SOPA and PIPA bill projects - the exploration of Internet governance (IG) issues through a “global war” lens has never been more relevant than it is today. Information and communication technologies, the Internet first and foremost, are increasingly mobilized to serve broader economic, political and military aims, ranging from the theft of strategic data to the hijacking of industrial systems. The rise of techniques, devices and infrastructures destined to digital espionage, data collection and aggregation, tracking and surveillance is highlighted not only by the recent Snowden revelations, but also by the construction and the organization of a dedicated, increasingly widespread and lucrative market.
As an interdisciplinary scholar of Internet governance grounded in Science and Technology Studies (STS) myself, I had been very much looking forward to the release of this book, which will undoubtedly prove to be a central reference for Internet governance as an emerging field of study in the coming years. As she had already and so ably done in Protocol Politics (2009), Laura DeNardis builds on her interdisciplinary training as an information engineer and STS scholar to untangle - and richly account for - the “technologically concealed and institutionally complex ecosystem of governance” that permeates today’s Internet. In doing so, she contributes to unveil what media and policymaker accounts of Internet governance all too often cause to stay out of the public radar.
While this book is also, indirectly, a means to revisit and update the debates on “multistakeholderism”, prominent in some IG venues such as the Internet Governance Forum, the author’s main interest rests unambiguously with the “technologically concealed” and its socio-technical agency: the extent to which non-human actors (to put it in STS vocabulary) such as information intermediaries, critical Internet resources, Internet exchange points and security devices play a crucial “governance” role alongside political, national and supra-national institutions and civil society organizations. Throughout the book, Laura DeNardis explores how Internet governance takes shape in the myriad of infrastructures, devices, data fluxes and technical architectures that - discreet, often invisible, yet no less crucial - subtend and build the increasingly public and articulate “network of networks”.
The author’s conceptual framework is shaped by five core research questions: how arrangements of technical architecture are, inherently, arrangements of power and politics, which can be revealed by bringing infrastructures to the foreground; how “traditional power” structures are increasingly mobilizing Internet governance technologies as proxies for content control; how Internet governance is increasingly privatized, enacted by corporations and non-governmental entities, in areas as diverse as privacy, control of online financial flows, censorship, and copyright enforcement; how decisions implemented within technical spaces on the Internet reflect conflicts over competing sets of values, rights, policy norms, as well as ongoing negotiations of the values subtending Internet architecture; and finally, how the variety of “local Internets” and the stability of the global Internet intersect and mutually influence each other, calling for a “carefully planned global governance framework” (p.18), a luxury that the rapid pace of innovation, the impressive scaling, and the diversification of uses have almost never allowed to Internet architecture in its global era.
This five-pronged framework opens the door to Laura DeNardis’s exploration and narrative of Internet governance as an ensemble of controversies and battles over “control points”, a narrative which constitutes the remainder of the book. These control points range from the deepest layers of Internet infrastructure to the “last mile” of user access to the network; from the blocking of financial flows to the deliberate “kill-switches” of Internet-based services; from the “graduated response” termination of domestic Internet access to the attempted use of the Domain Name System for copyright enforcement purposes; from the Internet’s backbone infrastructure to the establishment of interconnection agreements; and finally, the de facto public policy role assumed by private information intermediaries in the variety of instances where they gather, collect, aggregate, select, present data to users and to other actors of the Internet value chain -- thereby enacting governance over privacy, freedom of expression, cultural diversity and reputation.
The author’s training as an engineer provides the background and the tools for an exploration of Internet governance that I have described elsewhere as “not afraid of its subject of study” (Musiani, 2012): able to resist the temptation of an excessive “institutionalization” of IG, to avoid recoiling from the dense, intricate, complex, technically-grounded substrate of Internet governance power struggles, and to embrace the challenge of accounting for it in a detailed yet engaging way. While the methodological toolbox and narrative devices of STS are, unambiguously, precious instruments for the author, enabling her to achieve these objectives in a successful manner, this book is not “blatantly” STS. The vocabulary of actor-network, delegation, black boxes, co-production is there as a means, not an end in itself; the references to Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s work on standards (1996), to Bruno Latour’s musings on technical mediation (1994), to Michel Callon’s sociology of translation (1986), to Tarleton Gillespie’s “politics of platforms” (2010) are tools, not enumerations of the obligatory literature review; the description of socio-technical controversies is ever-present, but weaved discreetly into the narrative.
As Jeanette Hofmann once wrote, Internet governance is a “regulative idea in flux” (2007). Indeed, the search for concepts, tools and categories to make sense of 21st century Internet governance, both as a set of practices and technologies and an academic field of study, is very much open-ended, unresolved and problematic. The conclusion of The Global War for Internet Governance ties together beautifully the variety of “stress factors” that Internet control points will likely keep on being subjected to in the immediate future: increasing international pressure to introduce additional regulation at interconnection points; greater governmental control; technology-embedded threats to privacy; reduction of anonymity and its consequences for freedom of expression; loss of platform interoperability; and finally, “creative” uses and misuses of Internet infrastructure and their impact on the Internet’s security and stability. In this sense, Laura DeNardis’s work is indeed a blueprint for an infrastructure- and architecture-based “Bill of Rights” for the Internet -- and extremely interesting, required reading in order to understand more thoroughly the indispensible “backstage” of today’s highly-mediatized Internet politics.
Francesca Musiani (PhD), Centre for the Sociology of Innovation, MINES ParisTech
francesca (dot) musiani (at) mines-paristech (dot) fr ;[...]
Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star (1996). “How Things (Actor-Net)work: Classification, Magic and the Ubiquity of Standards”, Philosophia, November 18; 1996.
DeNardis, Laura (2009). Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Gillespie, Tarleton (2010). “The Politics of ‘Platforms’”, New Media and Society, 12 (3)
Hofmann, Jeanette (2007). “Internet Governance: A Regulative Idea in Flux”, in Ravi Kumar, Jain Bandamutha (eds.), Internet Governance: An Introduction, Hyderabad: The Icfai University Press, pp. 74-108.
Latour, Bruno (1994). “On Technical Mediation”, Common Knowledge, 3 (2): 29-64.
Musiani, Francesca (2012). “Caring About the Plumbing: On the Importance of Architectures in Social Studies of (Peer-to-Peer) Technology”, Journal of Peer Production, 1.
Callon, Michel (1986). “Elements of a Sociology of Translation”, in John Law (ed.), Power Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, London: Routledge.