Wired Norms: Inscription, resistance, and subversion in the governance of the Internet infrastructure

Niels ten Oever

Playlists: 'MCH2022' videos starting here / audio

Warning (but don't be afraid): this talk contains an overarching theory of the workings of Internet governance (with an emphasis on human rights)!

The rules of the road for the Internet infrastructure are designed in different governance bodies, such as the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and in Regional Internet Registries (RIRs).

I will showcase how Internet governance institutions are tied together through 'the infrastructural norm of interconnection'. This concept helps explain how Internet governance works and why many social and legal norms, such as human rights and data protection, get resisted and subverted in the governance of the Internet infrastructure.

This talk is the outcome of 6 years participation in and research of Internet governance institutions and processes, and is suitable for both issue matter experts and people who never heard of Internet governance before.

The entanglement of the Internet with the daily practices of governments, companies, institutions, and individuals means that the processes that shape the Internet also shape society. For this talk, I studied the norms that shape the Internet’s underlying structure through its transnational governance. Norms are the ‘widely-accepted and internalised [sic] principles or codes of conduct that indicate what is deemed to be permitted, prohibited, or required of agents within a specific community’ (Erskine and Carr 2016, 87). Internet governance is the development, coordination, and implementation of policies, technologies, protocols, and standards. Internet governance produces a global and interoperable Internet functioning as a general-purpose communication network in transnational governance bodies. I examine four cases of norm conflict and evolution in three key Internet governance institutions: the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF); the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); and the Réseaux IP Européens Network (RIPE).

I show how social and legal norms evolve and are introduced, subverted, and resisted by participants in Internet governance processes with distinct and dynamic values and interests, in order to develop policies, technologies, and standards to produce an interconnected Internet. I leverage notions and insights from science and technology studies and international relations to illuminate how a sociotechnical imaginary—the combination of visions, symbols, and futures that exist in groups and society—architectural principles, and an entrenched norm function as instruments of metagovernance in the Internet infrastructure. This way, I demonstrate how a sociotechnical imaginary, values, and norms facilitate, instruct, and evaluate the norm setting processes in Internet governance.

This talk is empirically grounded in the analysis of mailing lists; technical documents; policy documents; interviews and the extensive observation of governance meetings. I have operationalized this analysis using the following methods: quantitative descriptive analysis; network analysis; quantitative and qualitative discourse analysis, as well as in participant observation, including semi-structured interviews and ethnographic probes.

The aim of this talk is to show how Internet governance happening in multistakeholder bodies, what I call private Internet governance, solely functions to increase interconnection between independent networks. In this process, the introduction of social and legal norms—such as human rights principles and data protection regulations that might hamper increased interconnection—is resisted by significantly represented stakeholders in the process. Ultimately, I argue that while the sociotechnical imaginary and architectural principles serve to legitimize this governance ordering, the entrenched norm, what I call the infrastructural norm that transcends singular institutions, guides the distributed private governance regime.

The infrastructural norm of voluntary interconnection plays an instructing and evaluating role in the process of norm development and evolution in private Internet governance. The infrastructural norm is embedded in its institutional configuration, technological materiality, economical incentives, and supranational interest, and ties the private Internet governance regime together. In conclusion, I posit that the private Internet governance regime is designed and optimized for the narrow and limited role of increasing interconnection. As a result, the governance regime resists aligning Internet infrastructure with social or legal norms that might limit or hamper increasing interconnection.