By Niels

Off the Beaten Path: Human rights advocacy to change the Internet infrastructure

Report on Public Interest Internet Infrastructure workshop held at Harvard University in September 2019

by Corinne Cath-Speth and Niels ten Oever

Introduction

Surveillance-based business model[s] force people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.

Choice words from the latest report published by Amnesty International, in which they consider the human rights’ implications of Big Tech’s extractive business model. Their conclusions are bleak; the terms of service on which we engage in social media and search are diametrically opposed to human rights. This, however, comes as no surprise to academics and activists who have been highlighting the Internet’s negative ramifications over the past decade. In this blog, we present some thoughts on the promises and perils of human rights advocacy aimed at changing computer, rather than, legal code. It draws on insights shared during a two-day workshop on public interest advocacy and design in Internet governance processes, with a particular focus on Internet standards. The workshop, entitled “Future Paths to a Public Interest Internet Infrastructure” took place in the fall of 2019 at the Harvard Kennedy School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It brought together 26 academics, activists, technologists, civil servants, and private sector representatives from 12 countries.

Concerns at the intersection of Internet governance and society span way beyond—or rather, below—those touching on social media, search engines, or e-commerce. They also include technologies, like Internet standards and protocols, that most of us have never seen but rely on for our day-to-day use of the Internet. The development and governance of these technologies is increasingly subject to scrutiny of public interest advocates. This is not that surprising given the history of struggles over power, norms, and values that colour the development of global communications infrastructures, like the phone, the telegraph, and Internet standards.

The advocates currently participating in governance and standards bodies are legion: they span from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to various Centres for Internet and Society, to the C-suites of tech-companies. Their theories-of-change rooted in the idea that digital technologies shape communication such that it can impede or enable the exercise of rights. Their tactics focused on direct engagement with companies, often through the technical working groups of the key Internet governance organizations. Little, however, is known about these advocacy efforts. Like the standards they focus on, these efforts are largely invisible. The ferocity of the public debates about the negative impact of the Internet on society, as well as growing condemnation of industry-led tech ethics efforts, calls for these efforts to be brought to light.

Documenting Workshop Discussions

The discussion at the workshop took us from the very top of the Internet’s stack, where our social media and search applications live, to its depths where sharks chew on Internet cables. We discussed expanding, collapsing, horizontally and vertically integrating the Internet’s stack, and even doing away with the concept all together. Likewise, we discussed what it means to do public interest advocacy aimed at changing the Internet’s infrastructure, what “public interest” entails as a concept, how different stakeholders can be effective advocates of it, and what it takes to study it. We do not aim to provide definitive answers. Rather, we will highlight three discussions that show where participants diverged and converged on their respective path(s) towards including public interest considerations in the Internet’s infrastructure.

  • Pragmatism and its politics: How and when public interest advocates should team up with colleagues in the private sector or government was a crucial discussion during the workshop. It revealed that cross-industry cooperation often put the public interest advocates between a rock and a hard problem: how do you known when cooperation turns into co-optation? Many took a “pragmatist” position, acknowledging that their concerns around tech development often stemmed from core-business decisions, which they considered beyond their influence. However, they argued, this was insufficient reason to write off strategic cooperation to move the technical needle. Even if it meant much of their work was focused on treating symptoms rather than causes. The turn to pragmatism, highlighted an underlying concern. As with most social values, “public interest”, means different things to different folks. This in turn implies that public interest representatives are not only contending with difficult choices about strategic collaboration across sectors, but also within them. This tension is both irresolvable and interesting, for the debate and careful articulation of advocacy positions it requires. Which, as one participant optimistically quipped: is helpful because now at least I know where you are going and what it takes for us to get there.
  • Shrinking space for civil society: Civil society organisations trying to raise public interest considerations in Internet governance are fighting on multiple fronts. Within Internet governance organisations they are contending with inherent hurdles: the power differentials between corporate and non-commercial participants, lack of civil society funding for work seen as technically opaque and difficult to explain to funders; the technical learning curve; lack of consensus among allied organisations; and the confrontational culture of Internet standardisation bodies. At the same time, they are operating in a broader context of a shrinking space for civil society. In many countries, the regulatory environment is such that it is near impossible to be an effective civil society organisation. The question then becomes how to grow and sustain civil society participation in the development of the Internet’s infrastructure in the face of internal and external pressure that limit it.
  • What is the endgame? For some getting the tech right was their main concern. Other argued that this was too narrow an endgame for public interest representation in Internet governance. Focusing on the tech is necessary but insufficient. Code, the participants agreed, is not the pinnacle of societal change. In order for these interventions to have ramifications beyond their direct context they need to connect to existing work done outside of a limited number of Internet standardisation bodies. Many of the participants were actively creating these necessary connections to other technical communities, by talking to Internet Service Providers (ISP) and other Internet governance stakeholders. Yet, many agreed that ensuring the Internet’s infrastructure reflects particular articulations of “the public interest” requires policy as much as protocol intervention.

These three discussions only scratch at the surface of the conversation during the workshop. If you are interested in learning more, please see here for the full workshop report. The social movements bringing a range of public interest considerations (from civil liberties, to social justice, to human rights) to the Internet infrastructure and its governance processes, will keep evolving. Like the Internet’s infrastructure itself. This blog should thus as is good practice in academia, engineering, and activism alike, be seen as documentation of known issues and efforts at this current moment. Rather than a singular path-forward. It provides a departure point to further develop this conversation to include a broader range of stakeholders, network engaged scholars, and practitioners.

The workshop was organised by:

  • Niels ten Oever, DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam
  • Corinne Cath-Speth, Oxford Internet Institute, Digital Ethics Lab, University of Oxford
  • Beatrice Martini, Digital HKS, Harvard Kennedy School

We would like to thank the Harvard Kennedy School, ARTICLE19, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Technology Fund, European Research Council, DATACTIVE, and the Amsterdam School for Globalisation Studies for their generous support that made this this workshop possible.

 

Internet governance, standards, and infrastructure

Niels at ECREA: Infrastructures and Inequalities: Media industries, digital cultures and politics

The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) organized a workshop about Infrastructures and Inequalities. Here Niels presented his recent work on an experiment to inscribe legal and ethical norms into the Internet routing infrastructure. The conference helped to further concept of infrastructure, that continues to gaining traction in the fields of geography, media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies.

Niels at Kyiv Biennial on architecture, protocols, routing, power, and control

The topic of the Kyiv Biennial this year is ‘the Black Cloud’. The title reminiscences the contaminated cloud that traveled over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster and invites us to reflect on the role of technology. At the Kyiv Biennial, the critical media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko organized a two-day symposium with the title ‘communicative militarism‘. Here Niels spoke about the evolution of power and control in the Internet architecture, the political economy that shapes it, and the threats and opportunities that lie ahead. Other speakers at the symposium were Geert Lovink, Clemens Apprich, Svitlana Matviyenko, and Asia BazdyrievaIMG_20191018_201112

HTTP workshop hosted by DATACTIVE

This week, the fourth HTTP Workshop is taking place in Amsterdam, hosted by DATACTIVE in the University of Amsterdam. This event gathers people who work on and use the Web’s protocol to talk about how it’s working, what needs improving and where it might go in the future. As such, it’s an open, frank round table of people who work on Web browsers, servers, proxies, content management systems, and CDNs, along with those who use it to deploy Web sites big and small, as well as use HTTP for things like APIs.

This is different from a standards body, where normative decisions about the design of the Internet and Web are made; rather, it’s an informal discussion that’s designed to gather input from and inform those who don’t have time or money to go to multiple standards meetings.

Although many topics are likely to be discussed, one of the primary things we always focus on is security and privacy. In the past, we’ve explored how to improve adoption of HTTPS after the Snowden revelations. This time, current topics are likely to include even stronger measures against network attackers and observers, such as Encrypted SNI, DNS-over-HTTP (DoH), and anti-traffic analysis measures.

We’re also scheduled to talk about the continued deployment of HTTP/2 and its implications, along with the upcoming HTTP/3, and a large number of blue-sky proposals to evolve the protocol. We’ll also examine how we can grow to be more diverse and inclusive. It’s usually an exciting event and we’re looking forward to the discussion, as well as our time in Amsterdam.

For more information about the HTTP Workshop, see https://httpworkshop.github.io/
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Subversion in Vienna

Niels ten Oever held a talk on the subversion of equality and freedom of users in the Internet architecture at the Privacy and Sustainable Computing Lab of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The talk built on a mixed methods analysis of the Internet architecture and its technical governance, and showed how the Internet protocol community structurally did not uphold the values it professes, such as end-to-end, permissionless innovation, and openness. This opened up a discussion how such governance institutions could then be expected to safeguard external principles, such as the public values, which might run counter to the interests of many of the represented stakeholders. This sparked a lively discussion among the attending academics and policy makers about value frameworks and analytical tools and approaches that transverse the fields of technologists, policy makers, the law, and academia.

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Thinking global while also acting local: DATACTIVE and the Amsterdam digital agenda

The municipality of Amsterdam published its Digital Agenda in which it presents its ambitions to become a free, inclusive, and creative digital city. Amsterdam is grounding its ambitions on the early experiences with networking technology in the Netherlands, after which the agenda was called: The Digital City (De Digitale Stad). At DATACTIVE Niels ten Oever thoroughly analyzed the agenda and commend the city for its ambition to base the digital city of the future on digital rights. The approach of the city is anchored in concepts such as privacy, inclusivity, transparency, sovereignty, autonomy, universal access, transparency, openness, participation, and security, which are to be developed in a ‘Cities Coalition for Digital Rights’, and through interviews and cocreation sessions.

While the ambition is very laudable, the agenda has little to no references to existing legal, ethical, or technical standards on which this work can build. This could lead to a duplication of efforts, and a repetition of (expensive) mistakes that have already been made. This is why Jeroen de Vos represented DATACTIVE at the meeting of the Amsterdam Municipal Commission on Art, Diversity, and Democratization and offered suggestions that could assist the successful design, implementation, and evaluation of the Digital Agenda. The full text of the contribution can be read underneath (in Dutch). In the contribution DATACTIVE reiterates the importance of human rights in general and the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the international standards for state and corporate accountability in specific, in the implementation of technical infrastructures.

We hope and trust that our analysis of the report, which we shared with the municipality, will be our first contribution to the construction of a public information infrastructure in Amsterdam.

The original text of the oral contribution as read by Jeroen de Vos:

Geachte leden van de Raadscommissie Kunst Diversiteit en Democratisering,

Ik spreek hier namens DATACTIVE, een onderzoeksgroep aan de universiteit van Amsterdam die de sociale en democratische consequenties van datastromen onderzoekt. Wij namen dan ook met grote waardering kennis van de ambitie van de gemeente om een digitale strategie te ontwikkelen waarin mensenrechten een belangrijke plek krijgen. De gemeente plaatst zich hiermee midden een debat over de technologische infrastructuur van onze samenleving.

Wij hopen dat de gemeente niet zal proberen het wiel opnieuw uit te vinden: er zijn reeds veel digitale vrijheidsverklaringen, mensenrechtenverdragen, en technische standaarden ontwikkeld op dit gebied die de gemeente zo kan overnemen. Hierover wordt niets gezegd in de digitale agenda. Dat zou een gemiste kans zijn.

Wij willen van harte aanbevelen dat de gemeente in kaart brengt op welke verdragen, implementatieraamwerken, en technische standaarden ze zich gaat baseren. Dat kan worden gedaan als aanvulling op de agenda en meegenomen worden bij de uitvoering. Dit zal ook de implementatie van de agenda ten goede komen, omdat er dan heldere indicatoren en evaluatie criteria zijn en daarmee goed duidelijk wordt wat de digitale agenda gaat betekenen voor Amsterdammers.

Een van de belangrijke raamwerken die al bestaan, zijn de zogenaamde Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights van de Verenigde Naties. Dat is wereldwijd zowel in bij overheden als bij bedrijven de gouden standaard voor de implementatie van digitale rechten. Het zou goed zijn als deze wordt betrokken bij de uitvoering van de Agenda Digitale Stad.

Als de gemeente dat niet doet, zal zij geen kennis hebben van best practices, vanaf het begin achterlopen met de implementatie, en reeds gemaakte fouten en werk dupliceren.

Wij zijn natuurlijk bereid mee te denken, Amsterdam te situeren in de voorhoede van de infrastructurele digitale mensenrechten discussie.

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BigBang v0.2.0 ‘Tulip Revolution’ released

DATACTIVE has been collaborating with researchers from New York University and the University of California at Berkeley to release version 0.2.0 of the quantitative mailinglists analysis software BigBang. Mailinglists are among the most widely used communication tools in Internet Governance institutions and among software developers. Therefore mailinglists lend themselves really well to do analysis on the development of the communities as well as topics for discussion and their propagation through the community. BigBang, a python based tool, is there to facilitate this. You can start analyzing mailinglists with BigBang by following the installation instructions.

This release, BigBang v0.2.0 Tulip Revolution, marks a new milestone in BigBang development. A few new features:
– Gender participation estimation
– Improved support for IETF and ICANN mailing list ingest
– Extensive gardening and upgrade of the example notebooks
– Upgraded all notebooks to Jupyter 4
– Improved installation process based on user testing

En route to this milestone, the BigBang community made a number of changes to its procedures. These include:

– The adoption of a Governance document for guiding decision-making.
– The adoption of a Code of Conduct establishing norms of respectful behavior within the community.
– The creation of an ombudsteam for handling personal disputes.

We have also for this milestone adopted by community decision the GNU Affero General Public License v3.0.

If you have any questions or comment, feel free to join the mailinglist,
join us on gitter chat or file an issue on Github.

If you are interested in using BigBang but don’t know where to start, we are happy to help you on your way via videochat or organize a webinar for you and your community. Feel free to get in touch!

Niels presented his work in London, Gothenborg and Berlin

This Spring Niels ten Oever hit the road and gave different talks about the Internet architecture and infrastructure at:
– the Alan Turing Institute in a Workshop on Protocol Governance: Internet Standard Bodies and Public Interest questions.
– the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies, Department of Political Science and Department of Social Work in a Conference on Internet Governance and Human Rights.
– the Humboldt Instut fuer Internet und Gesellschaft in a Workshop: “We are on a mission”. Exploring the role of future imaginaries.

This helped Niels to gather feedback on his preliminary findings in his research on Internet imaginaries, architecture consolidation, and quantitative mailinglist analysis. Next to that he got to engage with other Internet governance researchers on Internet imaginaries and governance innovations.

The questions, comments and talks by other researchers led to a lot of insights which Niels is now reworking into two forthcoming articles.
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