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.