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AU 2030: Laura DeNardis

By Gregg Sangillo

Laura DeNardis at the Media Innovation Lab in the School of Communication.

As an engineer, Laura DeNardis spent many hours making computer networks work. But she then began to ask why certain systems were designed this way in the first place. "I discovered the politics of the technology," she says. "How things are designed within companies, in terms of how they communicate with customers, affects public policy."

DeNardis is now a respected Internet governance scholar and a professor at American University's School of Communication. Drawing on her research and experience, she can convey both how the Internet works and why. And it's hard to find a more relevant topic.

"We have three billion people connected to the Internet. This will soon grow to five billion. Most of the new growth will be in the developing world, with people accessing the Internet through mobile phones," she says. "We are completely dependent upon the Internet for our social lives, for our economic lives, and for political expression. So it threads throughout everything we do in life."

Out of Public View

Though online access has spread rapidly, the basic structure behind that is less visible to the general public. "There's a whole system of infrastructure, of institutions, of technology companies, of pipes, of undersea cables," she says. "That's what keeps the Internet running."

And contrary to what you may have heard, the Internet is not really a lawless, Wild West landscape with no oversight. It is governed, but it's not the usual governance taught in high school civics classes. Governments certainly play a role, and that's evident through fighting cybercrime, anti-trust protections, and net neutrality rulings, DeNardis says.

Yet much of the institutional framework running the Internet exists outside governments. "What I study are the hidden levers of control that set the policies that determine our civil liberties and our right to access knowledge," she says.

Knowing and Forgetting

When talking about Internet freedom, plenty of thorny issues arise. "One person's privacy is another person's censorship," DeNardis says.

Companies are forced to factor in decency standards, privacy, security, and the right to know. DeNardis highlights a recent ruling in Europe on the right to be forgotten. "Should you have the right to strip out information online about you? Well, it sounds good. But what if you have to reach into another person's website or delete a news media article in order to do that?" she asks. "None of these issues are cut and dry."

Avoiding a Fragmented Internet

Since it relies on the open dissemination of ideas, the Internet is inherently borderless and global. Yet recent events have threatened this paradigm. Through whistleblower Edward Snowden, the public learned that the National Security Agency had obtained consumer information from tech heavyweights such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo—sometimes over the companies' objections. A January 2014 cover story in Wired magazine argued that the NSA almost killed the Internet.

DeNardis says that the United States is far from the only country conducting government surveillance. But the political fallout from the Snowden leaks has the potential to fragment the Internet. With privacy concerns, some nations are passing or considering policies that require companies like Apple and Twitter to store information about their customers within national boundaries.

"It doesn't make sense in terms of how the Internet works," she explains. "Assume we wanted to start a social media company. Imagine if we were required to have servers hosted in every country. That would kill our company."

As the popular legend goes, Willie Sutton robbed banks because that's where the money was. Likewise, governments want data from technology companies because that's where so much data is stored. DeNardis says this is the Faustian bargain we've made for being online. Social media, email, aggregation, and searching are free on the Internet for a reason. People use these services, and their online fingerprints provide data to advertisers. (That is why you get Facebook ads related to things you've "Liked" in the past.)

"That's their business model. And when we start thinking about changing that, what would happen? We would stop getting free things," she says. "Money is not changing hands between you and the company. It's changing hands between the company and all of these advertisers."

Present at the Creation

DeNardis grew up in North Haven, Connecticut. A classically-trained guitarist, she started playing at age 7 and she still plays acoustic, electric, and classical guitars.

When few women majored in engineering, she earned her bachelor's degree in that field from Dartmouth College and a master of engineering from Cornell University. From 1989 through the mid-1990s, she worked in information technology design at Ernst & Young. This was during the period when the World Wide Web was launched. "It became very clear to me that this was going to be a major shift," she says now.

Utilizing that expertise, DeNardis started her own Internet technology company. Later, she studied the sociology and philosophy of technology and earned her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. She subsequently taught at Yale Law School and ran a think tank there called the Information Society Project. She came to AU in 2011.

She's published widely, including her most recent book, The Global War for Internet Governance. She is co-editing an upcoming book with School of International Service professors Derrick Cogburn and Nanette Levinson, as well as France-based scholar Francesca Musiani. DeNardis serves on a State Department Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy. She recently received a Google research award, which will fund a doctoral student to help her on a project dealing with Internet governance destabilization.

DeNardis is also committed to bringing even more people online. As part of AU 2030, she's done work that falls under the field of global disability policy, technology, and education. DeNardis mentions work by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure that websites are accessible for people with sight or hearing impairments. Again, the right policy decisions and technology can address this issue. "Having accessibility doesn't just happen. It has to be designed into the system."