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Author: Laura DeNardis


Fifty Shades of Code

k9883I recently read a trilogy of books addressing the politics of “coding.” Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, by historian of technology Janet Abbate, describes the gender transformation from the prominent presence of women programmers in early computer history to the more contemporary cultural stereotype of men as computer geeks. Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, by University of Toronto Professor Ron Deibert of the Citizen Lab, examines types of coding by hackers, governments, and corporations alike designed to restrict freedom and enact surveillance, whether as part of new business models, political suppression, or national security tactics. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by McGill Professor and digital activism anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, explores the culture of certain types of hacking as a form of engaged citizenship promoting both the freedom to communicate and the freedom to innovate.

How are we to resolve the cognitive dissonance of such disparate representations of the politics of coding: as reflecting broader gender struggles; as mechanisms of control and repression; and as culturally and ethically promoting freedom? These accounts actually share a conceptual framework suggesting that software code, like other arrangements of technology, are also arrangements of power. Coding is historically specific and culturally contextual, reflecting broader social tensions and embedding decisions that have implications for individual civil liberties, social arrangements, and global economic conditions.

Long before Google, Facebook, Anonymous, or even the World Wide Web, Langdon Winner wrote “At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority.” (From “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”) In this sense, technical design in the modern digital media context is a form of political engagement, but a form enacted primarily by the private sector, private citizens, or new global institutional forms. The salient question then becomes – what are the characteristics of technical design and production that imbue these practices with the legitimacy to enact such public interest effects and ultimately promote democratic conditions of communicative and economic freedom. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom makes a significant intellectual contribution in answering this question, backed up by meticulous research and a sophisticated understanding of political thought across history, cultures, and academic disciplines.

The term “hacking” is obviously malleable. As a scholar of Internet governance, the first issues that jump to my mind include practices such as regular attacks on the Internet’s Domain Name System; the Stuxnet worm sabotaging the control systems of Iranian nuclear centrifuges; infiltration and theft of corporate property; worms that exploit protocol vulnerabilities to disable systems; and the increasing governmental use of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to suppress human rights activists. For those who have not yet read Professor Coleman’s book, this is not the type of hacking that Coding Freedom addresses. It more specifically examines the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement and explains how this movement privileges values of freedom, access to knowledge, and privacy. As Coleman writes:

“F/OSS is an ideal vehicle for examining how and when technological objects, such as source code, are invested with new liberal meanings, and with what consequences. By showing how developers incorporate legal ideals like free speech into the practices of everyday technical production, I trace the path by which older liberal ideals persist, albeit transformed, into the present.” (p. 183)

Private corporations operating within free markets have created some of the most open and productive infrastructural components of the Internet, and human creativity and values of free expression can flourish in these environments. Furthermore, there are powerful corporations whose business models are predicated on free and open source software frameworks. But, in many areas of information policy, there are inherent and intractable conflicts between values of property and values of free expression. Coleman tells a convincing and empirically grounded story about how the F/OSS community sought to challenge the prevailing political economy of intellectual property law, create alternative modes of economic production, and produce software with productive potential for both economic and expressive liberty. Anyone examining citizen engagement in other areas of digital policy (e.g. online protests over the Stop Online Privacy Act) would be wise to emulate Coleman’s methodological rigor and interdisciplinary insights into citizen engagement in shaping freedom in the digital public sphere.

**A special thanks to Professor Danielle Citron and Concurring Opinions for the invitation to participate in this symposium**

Laura DeNardis, M.Eng., Ph.D., is an Internet governance scholar, a Professor in the School of Communication at American University, and the author of The Global War for Internet Governance


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.


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.