Internet policy politics - A Q&A with Marianne Franklin

Marianne Franklin is Professor of Global Media & Politics, convenor of the MA in Global Media and Transnational Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. We interviewed her in advance of the five year anniversary celebration of our journal.

Internet Policy Review: Marianne, you have been following the work of Internet Policy Review since the very beginning. Back in 2012, internet governance was a key notion. Does internet governance still mean anything today?

The short answer is yes, more than ever.

The longer one is; depends what we mean by this term. Over the last decade, at least, the issues that fall under the rubric internet governance have multiplied with all kinds of analytical and practical implications - legal, technical, ethical, sociocultural, economic and political. The internet’s design as a “network of [computer] networks” has also become increasingly complex technologically, which implies that the complexity of the legal, sociocultural, economic and political dimensions of internet design, access, use, and content management need to be embraced, rather than explained away. Internet governance used to be a descriptor, stemming from a stricter, engineering understanding of technical standards and network architectures that appear far removed from ‘normative’ issues such as rights, freedom, democracy and the like. In 2018, maintaining that this sort of narrow techno-centric definition is the only one possible would be avoiding the many issues we all face – as users, designers, policy-makers, academics, or activists for whom the internet is both an object and a means to achieve certain goals.

This is not to deny, or belittle the role that technical experts have played in shaping the way that the internet works. But as technologies are never neutral, nor immutable, the need to address the sociocultural and political implications of transformative technologies such as the internet, given how many people take being online for granted, is even more pressing today. In the last few years the stakes have also been raised geopolitically and within national polities. This means that technical experts, scholars, political representatives, and activists need to both sharpen their focus whilst bearing in mind the broader context of any emerging design, terms of access, and use, and how content – databases – are being managed, and for whom. These are exciting and challenging times in that regard because finding a focus, and keeping focused, whilst not being blind to the rest is not an easy task. But as demanding as this may be, it needs to be a core premise for theory and research, public policy advocacy, and activism that are currently addressing the spectrum of internet governance topics; for established and emerging scholars and for journals that focus on the internet like Internet Policy Review.

Internet Policy Review: Your specialty in internet governance is human rights. What are we looking at exactly?

Simply put, human rights with regards to internet communications and architecture are more than social and economic rights. They are more than the narrowly defined set of rights stemming from the US civil liberties and the American constitution (that enshrine free speech for instance). I think we need to be more, not less ambitious in this regard and consider the ways in which internet design, terms of access and use implicate international human rights law and norms as a whole, not only those that have been currently ‘cherry-picked’ so to speak. In addition, human rights law and norms, as western liberal institutions, are not beyond criticism either. I do not see human rights as religious tenets for they are also products of human history, quite recent history as it happens. Nonetheless the term encompasses three, if not four ‘generations’ of rights anchored in the UN system, which span from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those treaties and covenants that are derived directly from the UDHR such as the ICCPR, the ICESCR, or the ECHR to those on the rights of women, of indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and those of children.

In Western countries and Europe in particular, we’ve been dealing with the right to privacy online, particularly since the Snowden revelations in 2013 and subsequent events. This discussion is far from over, as jurisprudence has only really started to emerge in recent years. But privacy is but one right among many others and, moreover, it is one of the more controversial ones from a sociocultural perspective. Whilst Privacy, along with Freedom of Expression, and Freedom of the Press are well-developed areas for debate and action, they are the tip of the human rights-internet iceberg, a beginning not an end to the matter. Take for example, the work being done on raising awareness of the gendered dimensions to even these fundamental rights and freedoms and their impact on internet policy-making, how these overlap advocacy platforms that address the way in which women’s rights online (in terms of access, and freedom of association, and of information) are yet to be fully realised in many parts of the world. Existing and emerging rights (some argue that internet-access should be a new right) are already being reshaped in the face of how emerging technologies (the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence etc.), internet-dependent government services, and commercial mobile phone apps are changing the way in which people interact with the world around them. Looking ahead, moreover, to think about the connections between human rights and the internet across the spectrum and how much work there is still to do, we need to consider the role that education can play. By this I mean critical thinking, daring to ask questions and query the norm, not learning by rote.

Education, as a dialogue, in this regard is crucial because online and offline, internet-based practices and infrastructures based on data-tracking (viz. surveillance), not privacy or other rights and freedoms, have become normalised across Europe and around the world. The extrajudicial programmes of mass online surveillance about which Snowden called the world to attention have now become enshrined in law, from the UK to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and in the Global South as well. I’m deeply concerned about the continued assumption that accessing and using internet media and communications services have to be based on large-scale forms of data-retention, and the automated 24/7 tracking of our digital imaginations, and footprints, by both state agencies and companies (from tech giants to start-ups). These practices are political and commercial decisions, not a technical imperative. In Germany, France, the UK, we may now have privacy acts of some sort or another but all these regulations can be mitigated, if not circumvented by intelligence services, and law enforcement agencies. Just because something is technically possible, even commercially attractive, that does not necessarily mean that it is either justifiable or desirable.

It is only along with, and through education (e.g., through teaching people how to use crypto-tools, or getting them to question their habits) that we can combat this incipient passivity towards this emergence of surveillance as the norm, rather than an exception.

Internet Policy Review: What role can researchers play in addressing the challenges in internet governance?

I would like to see internet policy and governance research open up to other disciplinary approaches, e.g., digital cultures, feminist studies, philosophy, anthropology (being online is, after all, a cultural practice). Many scholars, of digital cultures for instance, would not consider their work as internet governance, strictly speaking. Yet these research agendas and theoretical approaches, along with those from philosophers and historians of technology, have been looking at human-machine interactions long before internet governance became a recognisable, arguably trendy domain. Besides, to speak of ‘governance’ often elides questions about the exercising of deep power – I have written quite extensively on the need to more thoroughly theorise, rather than describe how power is exercised, and pushed back against through digital, networked domains. We need to beware of fetishising the technical in this domain; the web continues to be a space in which enormous amounts of content – meaning-makings – circulate, including relationships, art and culture such as music, communities in which ideas and identities are forged. For these reasons, internet governance as a scholarly but also policy-making rubric needs to be anchored in multidisciplinary forms of inquiry and action. It is too important to be left to the experts, or become ‘parked’ in one corner of academe in other words.

So I guess my answer to your question is: let’s not get entangled in a standoff between disciplines or one between academic cultures (e.g., Anglo-American and European traditions as, ipso facto, superior to those from other, non-Western traditions). Whilst it is too important to leave it up to experts – technical or legal – this does not mean we should ignore such experts; quite the contrary. If the internet, broadly defined, is a technology of interconnections then so too should the way we study, write, and mobilise around internet governance be interconnected, cross-disciplinary. As these very terms of reference are transforming in the wake of R&D, and now policy agendas are looking to promote artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, nano-technologies, and design innovations such as blockchain technologies, we may also well along the way in a shift in the very experience of what it means to function as community, act and feel as a human being at the online-offline nexus. In that regard, philosophers, including feminist scholars, have been considering these intimacies between humans and machines for some time, and not always in simplistic, pessimistic terms. Which leaves me with one thought: is there the possibility that some consideration might be needed to whether there should be a ‘right’ not to have to go online?

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