Layerless Internet Governance: In Search of Internet Infrastructure

Content governance at the Internet infrastructure level is gaining some traction and Techdirt, EFF and a few others will hold a session on October 6th. This event is a good excuse for this blog but I have a slightly different approach. I looked at the infrastructure governance with a more holistic lense. It is still possible to make a system of governance for Internet infrastructure – one that ensures an open, interoperable and global Internet. It is still possible to even affect the governance of platforms positively by good governance at the infrastructure level. But first we need to find the Internet infrastructure we keep talking about, determine how it has evolved and how and whether non-infrastructure elements have affected it. 

Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp went down a few days ago, because of  a Border Gateway Protocol misconfiguration. Facebook had updated its BGP incorrectly. BGP allows one network that is part of the Internet to talk to other networks on the Internet.Since the BGP is a part of Internet infrastructure, there are arguments that this was an Internet infrastructure shortcoming and that centralization of Facebook is the centralization of the Internet. Which I totally disagree with but it sets the scene for addressing a critical issue: what is and where is this Internet infrastructure to govern?

I think Internet layering is partly at fault for making Internet infrastructure obscure. Some believe that the Internet has various layers. Those actors closer to the bottom layers are seemingly the operators of Internet infrastructure. For example, the Internet Service Providers are one operator of Internet infrastructure. Closer to the top of the stack, in the application layer, there are online platforms. Customarily these platforms were not known as Internet infrastructure. The distinction was so popular that we built the field of Internet studies partly based on it: some just study content-moderation/governance on online platforms. Some work on Internet infrastructure governance. The problem is that as the Internet and Internet-related technology evolve, the layers won’t help us much with identifying Internet infrastructure.

Setting the layers aside, I define Internet infrastructure as “Operators and service providers of the Internet that control, modify and affect the entire or substantial part of the presence of users on the Internet”. For now, we can see three kinds of Internet infrastructure emerging: 

1. Internet infrastructure by way of architecture:

Internet infrastructure through architecture: it is infrastructure as a part of the current architecture of the Internet. This kind of Internet infrastructure is more or less easy to identify. Their impact on online presence is immediate and far-reaching on the Internet. Most of the operators of Internet protocols, Internet Service Providers, Content Delivery Networks, domain name registries and registrars, and the like belong to this category of infrastructure. 

2. Internet infrastructure by way of policy:

Some platforms and Internet services can become a part of infrastructure through policy. This is a much harder category to define. For example, Apple (by way of policy) has a set of criteria for the apps in its App Store. If the apps do not meet the criteria, they cannot be on the App Store and iOS users have limited or no access to them on the Internet. In this instance, the App store has become Internet infrastructure because it can limit the Internet presence of certain services and Apps for the entire population of iOS users. Apple here is the gatekeeper for using that service “on the Internet”. When it approves an app, the App operates separately and does not exclusively use the App store’s network. So even if the App store goes down, approved and downloaded apps do not have a disruption in their service. 

Another example is the authentication account provided by tech-corporations. If certain integral online services and apps solely work through authentication accounts that Google or Facebook provide (via the OAuth protocol), these accounts also can be a part of Internet infrastructure. 

3. Internet infrastructure through collective action:

Various actors get together and adopt a policy that affects the Internet and Internet services. This kind of Internet infrastructure can hamper access to services on the Internet through collective action. An example that we have warned against in a blog about upload filter, is tech-corporation consortiums such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism that might mandate certain features such as upload filters for online platforms that can become a part of Internet architecture.

Another example (that might be debated) is online payment intermediaries that collectively stop facilitating transactions that are vital for the existence of certain online platforms to function on the Internet. When there are no alternatives, it might lead to the service providers’ diminished Internet presence. 

Inspiring Governance

Early Internet infrastructure governance inspired a lot of the current platform governance models. The take-downs, site integrity and spam, in general, many of the top-down governance mechanisms have remained. Also, content policy dialogues have started paying attention  to multistakeholder governance, which was a fundamental feature of Internet infrastructure governance at least for domain names. 

With innovative governance at the infrastructure level, we can inspire better governance on platform level. Platforms such as Mastodon and Fediserve both have similar design to distributed, open and interconnected Internet infrastructure. 

Good governance of Internet infrastructure because we are not yet at a walled garden stage. A fundamental difference between Facebook’s market infrastructure and Internet infrastructure is that Internet infrastructure allows people to build other Internet services on top. Facebook rents you an office (it chooses the color, desks and everything else), but Internet infrastructure gives you a global virtual land. On the Internet, in an ideal world, people can have their own data servers, can build their own chat function, or can build (who would have thought) their own website. There is still hope for innovative governance at the infrastructure level well beyond content governance. 


Farzaneh Badii
Digital Medusa is a boutique advisory providing digital governance research and advocacy services. It is the brainchild of Farzaneh Badi[e]i.Digital Medusa’s mission is to provide objective and alternative digital governance narratives.
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