The Politics and Power of Internet Infrastructure

We traditionally understand the world to be controlled primarily by technologies of violence and destruction. Who controls these technologies and how they are regulated are arguably the most important factors determining the global political landscape. Nuclear proliferation almost entirely determined international relations during the Cold War era, and North Korea’s recent suggestion about possible nuclear power attest to the continued importance of these technologies. Within the U.S., questions of power through weapons still exerts a dominating force on the politics of the United States. While countries like China do not allow their citizens to own firearms, the U.S. constitution affirms the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. Yet the exact details of whom may keep and bear arms, under what conditions and with what stipulations, is a question being seriously considered in the United States today, and which raises fundamental questions about the power of the government versus the power of the people.

Yet we live in an age where politics and power are driven increasingly by technologies not of violence but of information. Although violent technologies will always remain important, what is becoming increasingly essential to international and national politics and structures of power is the regulation and control of information. In particular, the Internet, that behemoth of information and communication that is quickly gaining control over all previous forms of communication (television, radio, print, telephone, newspaper, mail), is already a technology with political power on the scale of weapons of mass destruction. The following is a consideration of how this new form of information technology is manifesting radically new forms of power, reconfiguring a landscape previously determined largely by technologies of violence.

The Internet is a globalized network composed of various levels of hardware and software, crossing lines of government jurisdiction, and rapidly evolving since it’s birth only a few decades ago. Because of its relative newness and its complex, international nature, the Internet is still a relatively unregulated place, a kind of global “wild west.” And yet- although regulation in the traditional legal sense still remains relatively weak- clear power structures are rapidly emerging and crystallizing around certain aspects of the Internet. In particular, basic Internet infrastructure and what are called “critical Internet resources” are the areas around which these new power structures are emergent and quickly sedimenting. It is at this infrastructural level that the basic nature of the Internet is determined, with huge political implications for state governments, private businesses, and the citizens of the world.

PART 1: INTERNET INFRASTRUCTURE.

It is worth spending some time considering the basic infrastructure of the Internet in order to understand how certain power structures arise out of this technological base.

First of all, it is important to note that the Internet was built as a highly distributed network with a large degree of decentralization and flexibility. Yhe Internet was partially designed as a structure of communication meant to allow a maximum sharing of resources across a wide geographical region with the minimum amount of failure or error. With this in mind, “ARPANET”, a project funded by the U.S. defense department, was developed as the early predecessor of the modern Internet. The network utilized flexible information flows and redundancy measures to ensure that parts of the network could be cut out without drastically effecting the entire structure; thus creating a communication network able to potentially deal with a nuclear attack taking out centralized hubs of communication (an ironic example of how technologies of destruction determine even apparently mundane technologies of information).

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Contributing to the flexibility of the Internet is that it was designed with what is called “end-to-end architecture”, meaning that the network itself is built with almost no regulation (ie, completely “neutral”) and with only as many protocols etc. as is necessary to make the different components of the Internet compatible. The idea behind this is that Internet users have such a wide variety of different uses and needs for the Internet, that rather than limit the network by building in more features- for example, an automatic encryption feature that might be useful for some users but would simply slow down the processing of users who do not need encryption- that the additional features could be added in at the end (encryption taking place locally on the computers of those who need it). Because the particularized regulation of the Internet is done at the “ends” of the Network, in an “ad hoc” fashion, it makes overall regulation much more difficult to implement. Imagine a toll road that, instead of building the roads such that highway users are more or less forced to pass through and pay the toll, tolls had to be collected by sending individual bills to the homes of each individual user. They system would be incredibly cumbersome, perhaps even to the point of making tolls more costly than profitable.

This basic state of deregulation and flexibility in the technological base of the Internet has led many people to suggest that the Internet is inherently “free” and “egalitarian” (related to the idea that the Internet is inherently revolutionary and democratic). However, this “free” and non-hierarchical Internet infrastructure is managed and regulated by very powerful intermediaries. On top of this infrastructure exist many layers of organization and software to make the Internet usable as we know it, and two of these layers involve highly centralized and powerful intermediaries.

The first if these layers is that of Domain name and numbering. Domain naming and numbering is the basic process which allows information to flow from one side of the world to the other and reach the correct destination. Each individual node in the network has an IP address which other nodes use to contact it. Furthermore, these IP addresses are typically mapped to Domain names, which are what end users use to identify and request contact with another node. This is fairly similar to the idea of a phonebook. The user knows the name of someone they want to contact, they look this name up, and are returned with the address they can use to find them. This is of course an over-simplification; on the Internet, in keeping with its typical structure of distributed and flexible networks, these IP addresses change fairly frequently, many domains (like Google, for example) have large numbers of different IP addresses, etc. (For more information: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/internet-infrastructure5.htm, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/internet-infrastructure6.htm ).

This complex system of addresses and names, which allow for the organized flows of information across a highly complex international network, is managed almost entirely by a single organization: ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Although their role may seem largely bureaucratic and organizational, this organization is at heart immensely powerful, and holds huge political significance in the world of Internet regulation. To invoke another metaphor, ICANN’s role is sort of similar to the idea of an international map-maker/land-owner, who not only maps out what territory exists and whom it belongs to, but also has the ability to make some of these territories “invisible” or “inaccessible” to the rest of the world, or to take away territories when it believes that the owner does not have a right to them. Like in the real world, these “territories” or domain names are in fact incredibly valuable; consider the value of the domain name “Google.com”. Consider the value lost if ICANN decided to misdirect the paths to “Google.com” even for a few hours. Consider that ICANN can “divest” domain names and IP addresses for sites displaying copyright infringement, selling of illegal drug paraphernalia, and other offensive acts or crimes. In this way, ICANN is in fact a powerful political tool, with the ability to fundamentally shape the content of the Internet and regulate human behavior online. What makes this technical ability all the more politically important is the relationship that ICANN, as a private, non-profit corporation based in California has to the U.S. government. I will explore this particular power relationship in a later section.

The second layer of Internet infrastructure that involves a highly centralized and powerful intermediary is the at the level of the “Internet backbone”. The Internet is essentially composed of linkages between smaller clusters of networks, and these inter-network linkages are the Internet backbone. Originally built by the National Science Foundation, most of these huge fiber optic cables are now privately owned by a small number of Internet Service Providers or ISPs. Those ISPs owning portions of the Internet backbone are typically called “Tier 1” ISPs, and there are only about 5 of them around the entire world.

These Tier 1 companies all agree to share the information flowing through their chunks of the Internet backbone through “peering agreements”. Because each of these Tier 1 ISPs are approximately similar in their size of the market share, and because their interconnection is essential for all parts of the Internet to be connected to all other parts (rather than having 5 fragmentary “internets”), they share this traffic flow with each other free of charge. However, smaller providers must pay a Tier 1 provider to have access to the Internet backbone.

Like ICANN, these Tier 1 providers act as a kind of centralized point of power over an otherwise largely flexible, dispersed, and difficult to control network. Also like ICANN, although these private companies control the basic functioning of the Internet, there seems to be little reason to believe that they will use these powers in any significantly damaging ways. Rather, the current significance of these providers is in a more subtle form of power. Whereas ICANN establishes a precedent for NGO-government interaction in the regulation of the Internet, Tier 1 arrangements are establishing a precedent for highly centralized control of both the backbone of networks, as well as control of the consumer market in terms of both structure and content (horizontal and vertical integration). While horizontal integration is the fundamental characteristic of the Internet (connecting nodes to each other), vertical integration greatly amplifies the power these already very-powerful private business have over consumer access to information and communication technologies. This vertical integration becomes particularly meaningful in its relationship to state governments, which not only allow radical vertical integration, but take advantage of these centralized points of control in order to control and regulate behavior on the Internet.

NEXT: Part 2: Network Neutrality

2 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, New Media, Philosophy, Politics, psychology

2 responses to “The Politics and Power of Internet Infrastructure

  1. Pingback: The Politics and Power of Internet Infrastructure Pt. 2 | Puella Ludens

  2. Pingback: The Politics and Power of Internet Infrastructure, Pt. 3 | Puella Ludens

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