- The Global War for Internet Governance by Laura DeNardis
By Laura DeNardis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. viii+288. $38.
As a term and as a topic of debate and analysis, “internet governance” went mainstream in 2013. The Edward Snowden revelations and growing concerns about cybersecurity, censorship, and social media regulation put what had once been a narrow, technical, and specialized area of discourse into the headlines.
Laura DeNardis’s Global War for Internet Governance is an excellent introduction to the topic, though it suffers from a bad choice of title. Her topic is not really a global “war” over the governance of the internet, which implies an analysis of politics, events, and movements. It is, rather, about the proper way to conceptualize what “governing” the internet—a distributed, transnational infrastructure for communication and information—actually means. As she says in the first chapter (p. 2), “The escalation of Internet control debates into the public consciousness presents a unique opportunity for a treatise on Internet governance.” DeNardis’s treatise is grounded in the insights provided by science, technology, and society studies (STS), and is also aided by her background as a network engineer. Her analysis of how the internet is currently governed is based on technical architectures as well as institutions that are both governmental and private. She shows, for example, how processes of standardizing protocols have political and economic consequences, and how allocating and assigning technical resources such as globally unique names and numbers can create points of control where policies can be enforced—or contested.
While these points have been made in other works, DeNardis makes an important contribution to the field of internet governance studies by carefully and systematically conceptualizing what counts as internet governance and what doesn’t. She is the first to provide a clearly reasoned basis for distinguishing, for example, between studies of internet content and usage and the governance of the internet per se. “Issues of Internet governance relate to Internet-unique technical architecture rather than the larger sphere of information and communication technology design and policy” (p. 19). Moreover, she makes it clear that that distinction is not some narrow, minor one of interest only to specialist scholars, but is of [End Page 784] major practical import. This is because much of what we used to think of as public policy in communication and information is now developed in distinctive new ways: not by nation-states making laws and policies but by configurations of technology by both state and non-state actors.
The conceptual framework DeNardis relies on has five basic elements: technical arrangements as arrangements of power; infrastructure design as a proxy for content control; the growth of private ordering in internet governance; the way internet control points become sites of global conflict over clashing values; and the tension between local control of pieces of the internet and the globalized scope of internet operations. This framework provides a solid basis for approaching and clarifying many of the contemporary policy issues surrounding the internet, such as cybersecurity, network neutrality, privacy, and online copyright and trademark controversies.
This is not a historical account, but due to its grounding in STS theories, historians of technology will find the approach useful and compatible. DeNardis’s treatment shows an awareness of the way technology evolves over time and of the contingency of many decisions regarding standards, architecture, and equipment design. For graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses on internet governance or communications policy, this book is recommended as a text providing a broad, conceptually grounded overview.
Milton Mueller is professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy and the author of Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance (2010).