DeNardis Considers Internet Governance and its Inherent Ties to Politics

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Professor Laura DeNardis addresses the ways in which the Internet is used as a tool by governments in administration and surveillance of citizens.

Collin Young

On Thursday, November 3, Professor of Internet Architecture and Governance at American University Laura DeNardis gave a presentation titled “Bits and Borders: Rethinking Internet Freedom in the Age of Global Cyber Governance,” which focused on Internet governance and its significance.

To begin her presentation, DeNardis defined Internet governance as the administration and coordination of the technologies required to keep the Internet running and the formation of policies around this objective. DeNardis emphasized that, rather than studying content or how people use the Internet, she instead studies the hidden technical infrastructure of the Internet. Essentially, she studies anything related to the technical standards on which all technology is based, the domain name system and Internet policies.

DeNardis stated that the Internet has expanded greatly over the past decade, and, as a result, the political and social stakes associated with the Internet have grown to a point where they underscore lives. She stressed that an outage of cyberspace is equal to an outage of government and social life. Due to this observation, DeNardis claimed, Internet governance is deeply connected to politics, as arrangements of technology are arrangements of power.

DeNardis placed great emphasis on the interconnectedness that Internet governance has with politics. To illustrate her point, DeNardis provided examples regarding how the terms and services section of technologies affect how people use technology, or how the 2014 Sony Pictures Entertainment hack was politically motivated.

She also highlighted how infrastructure acted as a proxy for state power, as governments have begun to co-opt systems of internet infrastructure and governance such as data location laws, encryption backdoors and domain name systems for purposes completely outside their original technical and policy functions. As an example, DeNardis mentioned how governments have been able to block information by manipulating domain name systems. 

DeNardis concluded that, as the Internet shifts from a communication network centred on content to a control network reaching more directly into the material world, new conflicts arise. These conflicts exist at the intersection of bits and borders: the place where technology and the material world intersect. Her examples that elucidate her point about this intersection include the dark web and cyber warfare, as both of these involve the Internet affecting the material world.

The audience asked numerous questions about specific internet cases, such as the Apple vs. the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case that involved the FBI asking Apple to relinquish the features and designs of their technology to the government after the San Bernardino 2015 mass shooting. 

DeNardis’ responses to questions about individual cases revolved around her emphasis on the complexity behind the problem of wanting both security and privacy. For the Apple vs. FBI case, she pointed out that if Apple agreed to the FBI’s demands, they would also have to hand this information over to other countries that requested the information, such as Thailand. She pointed out that security dictates that the information should be handed over, but privacy dictates that the information should not be. 

The presentation was well received by the audience, who praised the way DeNardis explained the complexity of the problem.

First-year Ruchit Shrestha was pleased with how articulate DeNardis was in her presentation.

“It was good,” Shrestha said. “I find myself having a better understanding of what Internet governance is and how important it is in modern society.”

First-year Kerr Patrick Braza was impressed that DeNardis brought his attention to this subject during her lecture, while explaining the significance Internet governance poses today.

“In an age where the Internet is becoming increasingly prevalent, I think it is crucial for people to understand the importance of Internet governance and how interconnected it is with politics,” Braza said. “I especially liked how [DeNardis] described arrangements of technology as arrangements of power.”