Some comments on a book by Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet governance (Yale University Press, 2014).

This is not a complete book review; it is just a quick look. In many ways, Tom Vest's review of the same author's earlier book Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance (2009) illuminates this one.

There are some factual errors in the new book, but the real problem is its major conceptual error of sweeping up everything within the author's sight that moves and putting it all in one basket, curiously labelled "Internet governance".

We start right on Page 6:

The primary task of Internet governance involves the design and administration of the technologies necessary to keep the Internet operational and the enactment of substantive policy around these technologies.

This - in a chapter actually entitled The Internet governance oxymoron - simply lumps everything together under the "governance" rubric, and all clarity of thought is lost. An oxymoron indeed! Beware of Internet governance "professionals" who strive to label everything as part of their domain. Beware of facile phrases that mix separate complex issues under a single phrase such as "network neutrality".

But then, on page 23:

Governance is the exercise of power to enact a certain set of public interest goals.

By that definition, little of the book is about governance. (And it isn't everybody's definition of the word, either.)

As an example of inaccuracy, on page 34 we find:

It is not possible to access the Internet, use the Internet, or become an Internet operator without the unique identifiers known as Internet addresses, domain names, and Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs).

Conflating ASNs (which are not a scarce resource or contentious in any particular way) with IP addresses (no longer scarce, assuming IPv6, but artificially contentious as a result of past scarcity) or domain names (not scarce, but with vanity or linguistic value) is a blunder. As the book points out on p. 46, there are 4.3 billion ASNs available. Since only large networks with multiple external connections need an ASN, there is not even the remotest prospect of their running out. A resource which is not scarce and has no intrinsic value is nothing to do with governance. There are some interesting economic issues in the way ISPs peer with each other, where ASNs play a purely technical role, but ASNs themselves simply don't matter.

Chapter 3 Setting Standards for the Internet:

What can I say? Standards setting is not governance. Period. Carriage return. Line feed.
(That would be 2e0d0a in hexadecimal UTF-8, an example of why technical standards are really boring.) Of course, sometimes standards have unintended implications for users and sometimes need to be responsive to societal requirements, but describing that as "governance" in the sense DeNardis defines it is a ludicrous stretch.

Chapter 4:

...Security is one of the most important areas of Internet governance

No. Most of security has nothing to do with governance. Most of it is standards-setting, product development and support, and operations. Security incident response teams (often known as computer emergency response teams, CERTs) have to interface with both network operators and with authorities; there's a touch of governance there.

Chapter 6, Internet Access and Network Neutrality, page 147:

net neutrality is a local issue. Not when traffic crosses borders it isn't. Then it's a trans-border consumer protection issue, with a governance vacuum.

Chapter 7 on The Public Policy Role of Private Information Intermediaries:

Part of the public frustration stemmed from concern that Twitter's actions were influenced by its cross-promotional business partnership with NBC during the Olympics.

Supposedly this is part of the discussion of Internet governance! There is nothing, absolutely nothing, specific to the Internet about this particular issue. What would have been the difference if Twitter worked via a series of loudspeaker vans touring suburban streets? Another case where the book rolls everything under the sun up into one gigantic hairball.

Chapter 9 on The Dark Arts of Internet Governance starts thus:

The government-induced blackout that severed Internet connectivity in Egypt for several days was a shocking political event in Internet history. Citizens could not access the Internet or use their cell phones.

Soon after:

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a government- run transit system, shut down its in-station cell phone service for three hours to disrupt plans for an in-station protest.

Exactly. The Egyptian regime cut off telecommunications, which incidentally included the Internet. BART did the same. The book is about telecommunications governance if it's about anything.

The book's conclusion, as far as it has one, is erected on this house of cards: whatever the author sees is called "Internet" even if it isn't, and whatever she sees administering it is called "governance" even if it isn't. The book over-reaches; we are used to that from the clique of "Internet governance" professionals.

It's dangerous, because it misleads officials and politicians into believing that all the evils they perceive that are due to pervasive use of information and telecommunications technology are instead caused by the specific technology of the Internet and by the way that technology is administered. Neither of these things is true. There needs to be a healthy multi-stakeholder debate about the generic issues raised for society by information technology - it's about time, since it's now 210 years since Joseph Marie Jacquard started it all by inventing the punched card. Let's have that discussion instead of banging on about the non-problem of "Internet governance."

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