An exciting new read on Internet governance by Laura DeNardis

February 20th, 2014

I’ve just started reading a new book by Laura DeNardis, a scholar of the Internet and society with a background in engineering and Science and Technology Studies. DeNardis takes on the vast issue of “Internet governance” with what so far is a rare fluency in both the technology and the social and political context. The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale, 2014) has several very strong passages in the introduction alone.

Here is just a taste. Read the following with Edward Snowden’s revelations in mind. Those leaked documents have shown how governments and other entities interact in online state effort.

First, DeNardis makes one of the most important points about governance online: governments aren’t the only ones who do it.

Internet governance is about governance, not governments. Governance is traditionally understood as the efforts of sovereign nation states to regulate activities within or through national boundaries. Governments oversee many Internet governance functions, whether enforcing child protection measures, enacting privacy laws, enforcing computer fraud and abuse statutes, regulating antitrust, or generally developing national or regional statutes related to information policy. From the standpoint of global Internet governance, some sovereign governments also unfortunately censor information or enact surveillance over citizens. Most Internet governance functions have historically not been the domain of governments but have been executed via private ordering, technical design, and new institutional forms, all enacted in historically specific contexts of technological and social change.

Here, then, is how she defines the scope of her inquiry into “Internet governance,” a concept that has the potential to spill over into numerous policy areas:

Keeping in mind that there is nothing rigidly fixed about these boundaries, this book’s definition of Internet governance suggests four parameters: (1) the study of Internet governance is distinct from the study of Internet usage; (2) issues of Internet governance relate to Internet-unique technical architecture rather than the larger sphere of information and communication technology design and policy; (3) the practice of Internet governance extends beyond institutions such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and standards-setting organizations to include private industry policies, national policies, international treaties, and the design of technical architecture; and (4) Internet governance includes forms of architectural control geared toward promoting interoperability and access to knowledge but unfortunately also includes those techniques geared toward restricting Internet freedom.

Also in the introduction, DeNardis introduces one of the most important concepts for understanding the realities of Internet governance—the idea that states or other authorities can and often must delegate governance to private entities.

Other forms of privatized Internet governance are directly delegated from government authorities to corporations. In the field of [Science and Technology Studies] STS, actor-network theory would perhaps refer to this phenomenon as regimes of delegation carried out by technical intermediaries that are often “black-boxed” and overlooked by end users. Delegated governance is particularly prevalent in the Internet context because private companies, rather than public entities, serve as information intermediaries.


Governments wanting to enact Internet surveillance, censor information, block unlawful information, or obtain personal data are usually unable to directly execute these tasks. They rely on private industry. Governments ask search engines to remove links. They approach social media companies to delete defamatory material. Governments ask Internet service providers to relinquish personal information about their subscribers for law enforcement or political reasons. Delegated censorship, delegated surveillance, delegated copyright enforcement, and delegated law enforcement have shifted governance—for better or worse—to private intermediaries. These companies assume the challenging and resource-intensive task of arbitrating these government requests in different jurisdictions, cultural contexts, and technical environments. This phenomenon of privatization and delegation is not unique to Internet control issues but is part of broader political conditions.

I can tell from the introduction alone that there is much to dig into in this text. Some will likely be well-charted territory for students of online governance and the interaction of Internet technology and politics. But these distillations are valuable, and I suspect this volume will be adopted in roughly linear relationship to the rise in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on the Internet and politics.

Zittrain’s syllabus on “Controlling Cyberspace”

January 31st, 2012

Jonathan Zittrain has a history of teaching interesting classes on the internet. Here’s another, syllabus shared under Creative Commons and put here for my reference.

Why does the Internet environment exist in the form it does today? What does its future, and the future of online life in general, look like? To what extent is this future malleable? Governments, corporate intermediaries, and hackers are empowered to different degrees by the space, and their interests and strengths are often in tension. This class uses academic as well as non-traditional texts to engender a broader understanding of Internet culture and technology, with an end focus on making informed choices about the future.

A Note about Reading:

The reading for this class will be anywhere between 30-100 pages per session. It will probably be helpful to read the selections in the order they appear in the syllabus, as some of the texts assume knowledge provided by the ones before them. Of course, inclusion of something in the syllabus should not be taken as an endorsement of its position or author. People are still wrong on the Internet.

Readings are subject to change. Material not available publicly online will be posted to the course iSite.

Class 1: Monday, January 30th: The Internet’s Past

Class 2: Monday, February 6th: Whatever Happened to Jurisdiction?

Class 3: Monday, February 13th: Copyright and Free Speech

Class 4: Thursday, February 23rd : Representing Ourselves Online

Class 5: Monday, February 27th: Defamation, Civility and Attribution

Class 6: Monday, March 5th: Generativity

Class 7: Monday, March 19th: DRM and Circumvention

Class 8: Monday, March 26th: Crowdsourcing: Threat or Menace?

Class 9: Monday, April 2nd: Gamification is…

Class 10: Monday, April 9th: Regulation, Governance and The Internet’s Future

Is US nuclear energy stuck short of the thorium solution?

January 22nd, 2012

From Vice’s Motherboard and my friend Alex Pasternack, here is a great short documentary on an alternative nuclear energy model that many interviewed believe would have safety and economic benefits. Moving from a uranium and plutonium fuel cycle to one based on thorium, they say, would produce reactors whose failure state would be a safe one. The doc is a sympathetic view of folks who may look like cranks—but what’s to say they’re not on to something?*


*I have literally no idea whether this would work. Ask your local nuclear physicist.

The private sector battle over SOPA (me in Al Jazeera)

January 19th, 2012

Following yesterday’s demonstrations against U.S. Congressional legislation that could severely constrict free speech and online innovation, I argue in Al Jazeera English that private interests in internet policy are here to stay.

It would have been the most expensive political ad buy in the history of the world. Google’s search engine, the most visited website in the world, displays a black block over its logo. Wikipedia, the sixth most visited site globally, has disabled its English-language service. This unprecedented action to oppose legislation under consideration in the US Congress signals the importance of the private sector in Internet policy – and it won’t stop here.

Private companies are almost entirely responsible for your ability to read this article. The text travelled through a purchased operating system, over an enterprise office network, through privately-owned wires and fibre optic cables, and finally reached the privately-run “cloud” service in which it was composed. If you’re overseas from Al Jazeera’s servers, the message also travelled through privately-owned undersea cables-the bedrock of international communication and finance.

Many experts, including Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard and the leaders of the MIT Media Lab, have described in detail the threat to free speech, innovation, and the technology business posed by the legislation: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Most people, however, learned of the controversy through today’s online demonstrations, in which the online goliaths of our day have filled the picket lines.

Read the rest at Al Jazeera English.

The nomadic mode of scholarly production

September 11th, 2011

Ian Miller, a former classmate of mine who continues to work at the intersection of Chinese history and the history of agriculture and human productive capacity, has proposed a discussion on what it would mean to be “a nomadic academic.” His post is excellent, and should be read.

I got to writing a rather lengthy comment in response, and thought I’d put it here, selfishly, so that I don’t lose it.

Ian argues that “information has become diffuse,” and that scholars need strategies for the gathering and consumption of information that befit this dispersion. Instead of a few hand-copied books or a few hugely important libraries, information can be grazed and one must move among different sources and types of sources to gather the fullest picture. This he compares to the sparse biomass of the steppe, where people need tools like horses (for travel) and livestock (for storage of biomass to eat later) to gather enough to survive. Nomadic societies move across space to gather enough resources, where sedentary agriculturalists stick around and exploit the dense resources in a given spot.

What does this mean for an academic? First, it means that the advantage of residency at a library like the one at Harvard is diminished. Though the well there is deep, the information environment has changed. Information was always diffuse, but now there’s no excuse for ignoring far away sources. Second, it means that, as Ian argues, scholars need tools to gather diffuse information.

Now, my comment. A scholar must eat and obtain resources. Usually, this is accomplished through affiliations with the feudal, bureaucratic institutions we’re all so familiar with. Even as the mode of knowledge production and information processing has shifted, we have seen few new ways to feed a scholar. So, I want to propose one (that I, ahem, may be trying out).

The institutional structure of academia encourages people to walk one of a relatively closed set of paths. You need a degree in something, and that something is defined by a department or committee—a bureaucratic entity. The authority for deciding what can be studied, at least nominally, lies in a hierarchical institution with limited autonomy at lower ranks.

With the new information environment, however, knowledge production has a tendency to skip across “disciplines” or perspectives and to employ a wide variety of sources. Even in libraries, research is done with keyword searches, and someone interested in a particular moment in history may find a mathematical text that refers to it. Such topic-based search is really new, and it performs one of the functions that librarians used to provide (thankfully, they have other jobs and recent innovations). It’s as if a sedentary agriculturalist had to eat twenty crops to use the local land, but they decided they really only wanted strawberries, and the strawberries of the region were spread out. Our former omnivore now must spend each day walking from one strawberry patch to another. This only works if there’s a map of strawberry patches; otherwise, a random walk would result is starvation. Search engines and keyword searches produce such a map for any given topic, so the nomadic scholar bounds across sources, languages, and types of media to follow the map.

Now, we have a nomadic scholar, following a topic across institutional divisions in academia. Who’s going to hire this rube? Here, I think, we have the trouble for a researcher in the contemporary information environment. So, I propose that in addition to diffuse sources of information, a scholar in the new mode will need diffuse sources of physical sustenance, shelter, and other biological non-negotiables.

In my case, this means a combination of academic support and more standard jobs. The question for me is how well I can continue knowledge production from outside an academic institution. I don’t need a university to provide information for me, academic databases notwithstanding. My information gathering habits are portable. My academic experience so far serves to partially credential my work even as I work from outside. So, can the conversation move away from the institutions of academia and into a diffuse realm fueled by diverse contributors? Will academic employment stop being a standard component of scholarly production?

What do you think?

On the conservatism of political science

September 6th, 2011

Here we have a great (partial) paragraph from Alexandra Samuel* on the conservatism of political science, based on her experience heading back to the meeting of the American Political Science Association in Seattle after a few years “away” from the discipline.

I am most intrigued by the idea of unsettling a field that one APSA blogger excorciated for its innate conservatism. That conservatism is not so much a political position (like many academic fields, political science skews left) as a temperamental one. As I noted last week, this is a conference in which people still focus on publishing books and talking at you on panels. They take notes on paper, and nobody seemed to be having a panic attack at the lack of wifi. The Internet revolution has arrived, and given way to the social media revolution, and political science has remained largely unchanged except for the appearance of a few booths hawking e-textbooks and software tools for data analysis. And that conservatism makes sense, in a way, because we’re talking about a field based on the idea that research is a cumulative and incremental process in which each researcher builds on those who have gone before. [more]

I agree that such conservatism makes sense in a way, but I also find it regrettable. As Samuel notes, the Information Technology and Politics section is, predictably, a bit different, but it’s also small. Political scientists, I think, face a relevance dilemma: how can they be relevant to society, to readers or information consumers outside the discipline’s guild, and of course to students.

It is no longer the case that almost every academic with a blog studies the internet, but active use of online media would help academics understand the way their students communicate. Professors should be on Facebook and other platforms that are so essential to the way college students communicate. The professor’s teaching job, after all, is to communicate with students. The research task is to produce scholarship that will endure. Consider readers who grew up with the internet and social media, and tell me a manuscript with lumbering literature reviews is the way to share knowledge.


* Of course, I mistyped Samuel’s name as Samuels. Apologies, and it’s fixed.

Remember: The U.S. is also big on cyber OFFENSE

August 18th, 2011

At, Alex Pasternack and I took a look at the U.S. cyber offensive, one that’s far more secret but seems to match its worries about defense in scale.

I think it’s worth checking out.

U.S.–China cybersecurity: an asymmetrical Cold War

August 4th, 2011

No matter how you look at it, the United States and China are in some form of cybersecurity competition. Though attributing specific activities to the Chinese government or other groups or individuals in China is difficult, it is increasingly disingenuous to maintain that it’s unclear whether widespread hacking originating in China is happening.

So, following on the notion that Chinese cybersecurity is “crowdsourced” while U.S. efforts emanate from a creaking bureaucracy (h/t Evan Osnos), I wrote a little essay yesterday for on what I’m cutely calling an asymmetric Cold War.

The Cold War parallel is never far below the surface, but the dilemma for targets of attacks is how to face the “Adversary.” As a practical matter, creating unbreakable security is impossible; you can only make things better. But practical concerns make it hard to levy direct, public pressure on governments in China, Russia, and other hacker-heavy states. The result is something like asymmetrical cold war, with no mutually assured destruction and with destruction defined in terms of potential attacks during a hot war, or loss of financially valuable intellectual property. And there’s a lot of it, experts fear. Says one Senate staffer: “But terrorism is not the best analogy here. Who could have imagined that people would have flown airplanes into buildings?The difference with cyber is there are people trying to fly planes into buildings every day now.” [full text]

Perhaps invoking the Cold War would tend to exaggerate the scale of things, but, then again, perhaps not. After all, I lack hacking skills and security clearance. What do I know?

New York and tech entrepreneurs

August 4th, 2011

The New York Times has its room for debate feature today on a New York City effort to build a new engineering school in the city in hopes of spurring an innovation industry. The question for the respondents: Can New York rival Silicon Valley? Here are two interesting passages.

Until recently, “technology” was largely about “moving electrons on wires.” Now, “technology” is about building all kinds of interesting applications on top of the Internet. An increasing number of engineers and entrepreneurs are applying their ideas and energy to creating compelling services on the Internet. —Fred Wilson


New York can never become Silicon Valley; and it shouldn’t. The mythologies of New York are entirely different from the singular lore of the valley. The start-ups we see emerging from New York already have a texture unlike those in California. Tumblr vs. Posterous is one often cited example. Kickstarter is another example of a start-up that seems quintessentially New York. This difference should be nurtured. —Craig Mod

Morning briefing: Understanding Bitcoin in 20 minutes

August 1st, 2011

Screen capture of Bitcoin price in USD from Mt Gox, a Bitcoin exchange.

I’ve been following the story of Bitcoin, the not particularly anonymous online currency that has been getting a lot of attention. As with any number of other issues, the best quick way to understand this economic phenomenon is NPR’s Planet Money podcast.

The Bitcoin episode (listen here) manages to explain the tough technical side without getting into the weeds. More exciting, they talk about trust in the currency, fluctuations in the price for USD-Bitcoin trades (like the one last weekend, pictured), and they talk to at least one person who really gets it.

So, give it a listen if you want a quick primer.