The Global War for Internet Governance

Book Review: The Global War for Internet Governance (2014) by Laura DeNardis

First Twitter, then YouTube: the Turkish government has blocked internet service providers for reasons of “national security”. Fortunately, at least some Turkish citizens are technical savvy enough to circumvent the blockage by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or by changing the domain name settings (DNS) on their computers. Evil government is not able to put a stop to the liberating power of technology. This seems to be the story behind recent news. Is it really?

Politics embedded in technology

The Internet-scholar Laura DeNardis’ recent book The Global War for Internet Governance shows why the story of Evil government versus the liberating power of technology is thoroughly misleading when thinking about how the Internet is politicized. Instead of looking at politicians, DeNardis tells us, we should look at the technical mechanisms that keep the internet operational. It’s here, at a technical level, where the most important political issues are hidden. These issues are matters of power, but also questions of competing values, such as freedom of expression versus law enforcement, access to knowledge versus intellectual property rights, media freedom versus national security, and individual privacy versus online business models.

Contrary to what the title might suggest – The Global War for Internet Governance – DeNardis’ book is not a non-fiction thriller, but a very precise description of the technical components of the phantom “the Internet”. It’s full of both technical and organizational details, concerning such nicely abbreviated objects as BGPs (Border Gateway Protocols), the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), IXPs (Internet Exchange Points), RFCs (Request for Comments) and about 150 other. All this is not particularly entertaining. But for sure it is informative:  The Global War for Internet Governance might be the best detailed description of what “the Internet” is and how it is governed.

A particular strength of DeNardis’ approach is to make explicit how the technical and architectural design of the Internet is by no means the result of deliberate planning and technological necessity, but rather the outcome of a series of historical incidents – indicating a considerable range of different paths which the Internet’s evolution could have taken and still can take.

At the heart of the issue: Scarce codes

One of the most important issues DeNardis deals with is the extent to which private companies and non-governmental organizations are actually in charge of jointly running the infrastructure which we perceive as “the Internet”. (By the way: The Global War for Internet Governance is far from arguing that “the Internet” as a unified whole doesn’t exist, as the Internet-Critic Evgene Morozov is not getting tired to proclaim. To the contrary: DeNardis’ book shows how a great variety of different actors cooperates to establish exactly this: a unified whole.) An example for the power of non-governmental organizations is the ongoing debate about the distribution of critical Internet resources (CIRs) which are necessary for the day-to-day operation of the internet. These resources include, most of all, numerical and alphabetical codes of limited supply such as Internet addresses and domain names. Despite their apparently technical character, CIRs intersect with a whole range of policy issues. Among these issues are questions of how and by whom scarce codes representing names and domains should be distributed; how these codes can or cannot be used for copyright enforcement and censorship; and whether or not the system allows for online-anonymity at all.

One case that illustrates the practical importance of Critical Internet Resources as well as the role of non-governmental actors in the politics of the internet is the blockage of WikiLeaks by the DNS resolution service in 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks started to release sensitive diplomatic correspondences. The blockage made the WikiLeaks-website practically disappear from the Internet. In a way, this is quite similar to what happens to Twitter and YouTube in Turkey these days. Both cases are examples of what DeNardis calls a “balkanized digital sphere in which the content that can be accessed is dependent on the local operator through which an individual accesses the web”. The root of the problem, though, is neither evil government nor an evil company, but the technical infrastructure. A balkanized or fragmented digital sphere is a result of a fragmented system of Internet governance. It’s only because DNS-resolution has been handed over to third parties like the provider, that this provider could decide to cut off WikiLeaks without being constrained by protections of free speech and press.

Without net neutrality, it could well be the case that consumers will have unlimited access only to content providers like YouTube, Google or Facebook

Fragmentation is also the issue standing behind the topic of net neutrality, which not only makes up for a whole chapter in De Nardis’ book, but also been debated by the European Parliament recently. Net neutrality is about access to information and the power of local operators to restrict this access. This is of concern to consumers as well as to content providers. Without net neutrality, it could well be the case that consumers will have unlimited access only to content providers like YouTube, Google or Facebook, whereas access to smaller content producers is throttled by internet service providers (such as telephone companies). Thus, smaller companies would have hardly a chance to enter the market.

Big Government for the Internet?

Is there a fix for fragmentation? DeNardis thinks there is. In the end, The Global War for Internet Governance is a plea for a more coherent, and, yes: more authoritarian or centralized style of handling Critical Internet Resources. Before Snowden (and the book is written in a before Snowden-perspective), this kind of authority, which should be responsible for the protection of free speech and press, could be easily identified with the state. Today, one might be more critical concerning the role which especially the US-government plays in many of the organizations which are responsible for Critical Internet Resources.

Unfortunately, an easy solution is not even at hand in theory. If we leave the governance of the Internet to a dispersed multi-stakeholder community, we end up with a fragmented digital sphere. If we hand it over to elected and constitution-bound government officials, we could have a non-fragmented, unified Internet. But there is a price we have to pay for this: The more Internet governance is centralized, the easier it is for secret services to engage in surveillance. But maybe surveillance is a price that we do have to pay anyhow.

Ralf Grötker