On Infrastructure

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

Recently, I was reading through an edited collection titled The turn to infrastructure in Internet governance. Few of the chapters held my interest for long, and for a book supposedly about the infrastructure ‘turn’, too many of the topics had already been well-covered in the internet governance literature (like organizations devoted to internet governance and the DNS). In the book’s introductory chapter, DeNardis and Musiani write:

…there is increasing recognition that points of infrastructural control can serve as proxies to regain (or gain) control or manipulate the flow of money, information, and the marketplace of ideas in the digital sphere. We call this the “turn to infrastructure in Internet governance.” As such, the contributions in this volume… depart from previous Internet governance scholarship, by choosing to examine governance by Internet infrastructure, rather than governance of Internet infrastructure. (p.4)

I largely want to put aside the question of how well the contributions in the book achieve this, and just focus on the topic of ‘governance by infrastructure’, and what this means. First, governance by infrastructure necessarily implies governance of infrastructure, but the emphasis shifts to particular features of infrastructure as points of control through which various social processes can be governed. So what do we mean by infrastructure? For DeNardis and Musiani, citing Bowker and colleagues:

the term “infrastructure” first suggests large collections of material necessary for human organization and activity—such as buildings, roads, bridges, and communications networks. However, “beyond bricks, mortar, pipes or wires, infrastructure also encompasses more abstract entities, such as protocols (human and computer), standards, and memory,” and in the case of the Internet, “digital facilities and services [ . . . such as] computational services, help desks, and data repositories to name a few… Infrastructure typically exists in the background, it is invisible, and it is frequently taken for granted. (p.5)

When it comes to the internet, infrastructure is more than just the ‘plumbing’ — it includes ‘abstract entities’ and social organizations, and this inclusive understanding might lead us to see all sorts of traditional internet governance studies as studies of infrastructure. So let’s try to narrow the focus to what makes infrastructure distinctive, besides the fact that it is frequently invisible.

Common definitions of the term discuss infrastructure as foundations, frameworks, and whatever provides support for something. There is a lot of overlap with the definitions of a public service or utility here, and this is why we typically think of electricity, water, and roads as infrastructure — without the underlying support of these systems or networks, countless social processes would grind to a halt. The early internet supported particular and specialized kinds of activities, but today it’s easy to see our digital networks as underpinning communications and social relationships in general, and therefore functioning as a kind of public good.

By seeing the internet as infrastructure, we might ‘turn’ to look at all of the ways it contributes to our daily lives. Much of this support is effectively invisible, and only comes to our attention when it stops working. The closer we get to the future promised by the Internet of Things, the more disruption will be experienced by these outages. This is reflected in the classification of telecom network as “critical infrastructure” — a category that has been the focus of government concern  in recent years, leading to a proliferation of partnerships, policies, frameworks, and standards.

Critical infrastructure is governed so that it does not break, or that it continues to provide essential services with minimal interruption. This is a developing and little-publicized topic (given the overlap with national security) so this sort of ‘governance-of-infrastructure’ has actually not received much internet governance scholarship. In contrast, the ‘governance-by-infrastructure’ that DeNardis and Musiani identify is about more than keeping the lights on and the data packets moving, and if we’re going to take this infrastructure turn seriously, one of the most important places to look is at ISPs as points of control. The idea that society can be governed by ISP responsibilities is now an old one, but remains a common approach. ISPs have obligations to connect to each other (or other institutions), and are called upon to monitor, increase, shape, limit or filter connectivity. Google and Facebook may have become massive operators of infrastructure, but last-mile and middle-mile networks remain essential chokepoints for internet governance.

ISPs are inextricably dependent on material infrastructure, since they are fundamentally in the business of moving packets to and from customers through a physical connection. Even wireless ISPs are limited by the laws of physics, as only so much information can be carried through the air (where it is also susceptible to interference). Accordingly, wireless ‘spectrum’ is carefully divided between intermediaries and managed (in Canada) by ISED as a precious resource – with spectrum licenses auctioned to intermediaries for billions of dollars (licenses that come with public obligations). Owning license for spectrum is quite a different matter from actually using it, and to serve millions of customers, further billions of dollars must be invested in a system of towers and their attendant links. The wired infrastructure of ‘wireline’ ISPs can be even more expensive, since cable must run to each individual customer, requiring kilometers of trench-digging, access to existing underground conduits, or the use of privately-owned utility poles. This means that the rights-of-way which secured the early development of telephone networks remain important for anyone deploying wired infrastructure, further privileging incumbents who own conduit or have access to utility poles. These rights-of-way are also one of the only ways municipal governments can control telecom infrastructure, by negotiating or referring to municipal access agreements. However, struggles between municipalities and intermediaries over access to right-of-way can also be quite contentious, and may also be adjudicated by the CRTC.

Finally, as with all things, I’m interested in the language we use to discuss these topics. Calling something infrastructure implies something different than utilities or ‘public works‘, but all three indicate a relation to an underlying public interest. Since so much of it lies in private hands, infrastructure is currently the preferred expression, but even this term reminds us that we all jointly depend on these corridors, poles, pipes, electronics, and the people who keep it all running.



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