Telecom Responsibilization: Internet Governance, Surveillance, and New Roles for Intermediaries

I’ve just had my most recent article published in the Canadian Journal of Communication. From the abstract:

This article foregrounds internet intermediaries as a class of actors central to many governance and surveillance strategies, and provides an overview of their emerging roles and responsibilities. While the growth of the internet has created challenges for state actors, state priorities have been unfolded onto the private institutions that provide many of the internet’s services. This article elaborates responsibilization strategies implicating internet intermediaries, and the goals that these actors can be aligned toward. These include enrolling telecom service providers in law enforcement and national security-oriented surveillance programs, as well as strategies to responsibilize service providers as copyright enforcers. But state interests are also responsive to pressures from civil society, so that “internet values” are increasingly channelled through the formal political processes shaping internet governance.

This particular work took more time and revision than anything else I’ve had appear in print. I began working on it prior to my PhD research (and before Snowden), germinating in a conversation I had with my supervisor. I was trying to explain some of my interests in how intermediaries end up serving state surveillance and security objectives, and how “deputization” didn’t seem to be an adequate way of describing the process. He proposed I look at the notion of “responsibilization”, even if what I was describing ran counter to some of the neoliberal logic often associated with the concept.

In the end, the article became a way for me to engage and disengage with different theoretical commitments, while working through some particular cases of intermediary obligations that I was interested in (graduated response, lawful access, interconnection). I’m using the piece as a way to talk about something that many people have pointed out: the importance of intermediaries in contemporary power relations. However, my focus is not just on the power that these companies have over our lives, but the potential for intermediaries to become instruments of power. This leads numerous actors (state and non-state), with particular visions of how to shape or order society, to treat intermediaries as “points of control” (Zittrain, 2003).

The idea of responsibilization is a useful way to understand certain relationships between state and private actors, but it is a concept that deserves some elaboration and careful qualification. Responsibilization has frequently been presented as an aspect of neoliberal governance, corresponding with an emphasis on individual responsibility for one’s conduct and well-being, and the increased involvement of private actors in domains that were previously a responsibility of the state (Burchell, 1996, p. 29). Under this definition, the state’s enlistment, partnering with, or outright deputizing of intermediaries can be seen as a way to devolve state responsibilities and regulatory powers onto private actors. Yet there is nothing particularly new about telecom providers being aligned toward state goals, or accepting obligations towards some sort of public good (security, surveillance, universal service). Also, rather than a shrinking neoliberal state transferring responsibilities to the private sector, responsibilization can actually represent an extension of state power — reaching deeper into civil society by enlisting key network nodes.

Responsibilization and Social Theory

If we understand responsibilization as a technique of government that can be independent of neoliberalism, we can think about how it might be compatible with more generalizable social theories. Originally, I was interested in exploring how the responsibilization of intermediaries could be treated as a combination of Castells’s “programming power” and “switching power”. Abandoning Castells, I then moved further in the direction of governmentality literature and the work of Mitchell Dean. Dean’s work became invaluable as I was thinking through the role of state power and its relationship to all that we now sometimes refer to as civil society. In particular, I was strongly influenced by Dean‘s analysis of what he calls “liberal police”, which operates (in part) through an “unfolding” of governmental programs into civil society.

In regards to surveillance studies, responsibilization seems quite compatible with Haggerty and Ericson’s (2000) well-known idea of “the surveillant assemblage”, referring to the “disconnected and semi-coordinated character of [contemporary] surveillance” that allows actors to “combine and coordinate different monitoring systems that have diverse capabilities and purposes” (Haggerty and Ericson, 2006, p. 4). Responsibilization describes one important means by which the surveillant assemblage can become coordinated, and while Haggerty and Ericson tend to emphasize the decentralized and diffuse character of contemporary surveillance, they also recognize that “powerful institutions” can remain “relatively hegemonic” to the extent that they can “harness the surveillance efforts of otherwise disparate technologies and organizations” (Haggerty and Ericson, 2006, p. 5). The state remains in a privileged position to coordinate various aspects of the surveillant assemblage, whether through the force of law or less coercive means (such as moral suasion and appeals to patriotic duty).

Where else might the idea of responsibilization bear fruit? The distinctions I make about different types of responsibilization in the published article may certainly be applicable beyond telecom, and I think we can find plenty of examples of responsibilization operating as a technique of governance if we detach the concept from certain presumptions about neoliberalism.

In summary…

Our daily experiences are increasingly being governed through intermediaries, often in ways that we don’t appreciate. Proposed solutions to social problems, threats, immorality, and disorder now often argue for better governance of intermediaries. Battles over the shape of digital society often come in the form of battles over the responsibilities we should impose on intermediaries, or debates about the responsibilities that intermediaries should willingly accept.


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