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Professor Tackles Issues of Internet Governance

By Rick Horowitz

Who gets to use the Internet domain name Delta Airlines, Delta Faucet, or Delta Financial? And who gets to decide? When, if ever, might a government-ordered shutdown of the Internet be acceptable? Are we running out of Internet addresses?

Laura DeNardis, one of the world’s leading experts in “Internet governance” and an associate professor in American University’s School of Communication (SOC), ponders these puzzles, and countless others as she contemplates how the online world is structured and administered, and by whom, and with what consequences.

Her forthcoming book, The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale University Press), is her fourth on the subject, and arrives on the heels of sudden interest in government surveillance—often with corporate assistance—of private citizens’ seemingly private actions and conversations.

“It’s an interesting world right now,” DeNardis said. “The public sphere is increasingly mediated by technology. But that technology is largely controlled by private industry and new global institutions.”

Then there’s the question of which technologies, which companies, even which governments, get to make and enforce the rules. Internet governance is “contested space,” she maintains, “always reflecting broader global power struggles.”
Challenging Three Widely-Held Assumptions

DeNardis’ latest book challenges three widely held assumptions: First, that “architecture is simply architecture”—that the protocols and switches and packets that make up the Internet provide a neutral structure, organically grown and untarnished by particular values or interests. Not true, she makes clear: "Arrangements of technical architecture are also arrangements of power.”

Nor are those values and interests consistent region to region, or even country to country. (What matters more? Protecting anonymity, or preserving public order? Fostering innovation, or safeguarding existing intellectual-property rights? It can depend on where you ask the question.)

Second assumption: that to the extent the Internet “stands” for anything, it’s not, as so often claimed, only the values of freedom and democracy and unrestricted flow of information. Every bit as often, DeNardis contends, the same Internet tools that advance access to knowledge are employed to monitor citizens, stifle dissent, or disable economic competitors.

And the third assumption: that control of the Internet rests primarily with governments, with an occasional assist from the academic and research worlds. Increasingly, DeNardis points out, “governmental” functions are actually being carried out by private entities—profit-making (or at least profit-seeking) companies pursuing their own corporate goals.
Multistakeholder, Grassroots Governance Is Best

The vast and ever-shifting mix of players involved in Internet governance doesn’t bother DeNardis, who has two decades of Internet governance experience, both as an engineer and social scientist. It may look like “chaos,” she says, but “it’s organized chaos,” and it’s done pretty well so far. Of more concern: a shift away from this multistakeholder balance of powers. And a related concern? The narrow range of people currently taking part in global conversations examining the critical issues at stake—privacy, freedom, national security, child safety, economic progress, etc. It’s key to what she tries to convey to her AU grad students.
She helps them explore the “major theories of law” here and abroad that pertain to the Internet, she says, “but also cultural values, and how those shape freedom of expression. I want them to figure out where they stand on these issues.”
For DeNardis, the multistakeholder, grassroots approach to Internet governance still works best; that means coordination, led by the private sector, that promotes innovation—but also a recognition that governments have important roles to play in protecting public safety and security. What she doesn’t want, looking a decade ahead: “outsized powerful entities”—whether public or private—“restricting the flow of information for their own benefit.” A more engaged civil society, she feels, is necessary to avoid this troubling possibility.

“The only constant in Internet governance,” DeNardis says, “is the condition of constant change, creating the omnipresent uncertainty of rivalrous alternative futures.”

Expect her to be there—asking more questions, raising more alarms—as those “rivalrous futures” play out.