Making Access Visible: Representations of the Internet

Willow Williamson is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

Marshall McLuhan’s often quoted “the Medium is the Message”[i] took on a new resonance for me as I absorbed the discussions from the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. What exactly is “the medium” of the internet; and who gets to define what it contains, decide where it is located, and make decisions about information and communication flows? These were some of the questions that participants discussed at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar on “Foreign Policies of the Internet.” Panelists examined the layers of meaning contained within and represented by the internet, ranging from the physicality of its infrastructure and ownership, to what it represents as an idea, to how these layers affect international communications and relations. Underlying these conversations were the questions: What happens when international norms are in conflict? And, whose voices are heard and represented in determining and negotiating those norms?

Privacy Versus Security

Since 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, ongoing conversation in the United States places privacy in opposition to security. These debates are not new, as evidenced by David Vincent’s historical account of the privacy versus security debate regarding the United Kingdom Postal Service in 1844 (see also article). Most recently, the Snowden leaks brought the issue of state actors using covert surveillance into international diplomatic negotiations. How does the concept of freedom, and a free internet fit into this privacy versus security (through surveillance) discourse? One problem is that this binary ignores historical experiences of how security has been used as a way to invade individual and group rights. The debate highlights disparities in US society between those who have assumed the privilege of privacy in public spaces and those who have experienced invasions of privacy in public spaces through practices such as racial profiling. In the post-9/11 world, the idea of privileging security over privacy was, in part, critical to the passage of the Patriot Act. But, for those who were personally and physically affected by the kinds of impositions that the Patriot Act allows have a differing conception of privacy from those who have not experienced how taking away privacy can profoundly impact daily life. Examples of these impositions include intrusions into the home and tracking of activities, contacts, and correspondences. There are also other effects including: self-censoring activities such as what books individuals choose to check out from libraries for fear of raising red flags, who gets pulled off of flights for extra questioning, and who is put onto no-fly lists.

There has been significant scholarly work on how the concept of security extends beyond the state to private spaces of the home as well as on how security works in daily lives and impacts individuals and families. Feminist scholarship in particular has looked at broadening the idea of what is included in world politics to include “the personal and previously invisible spheres.”[ii] Laura Sjoberg argues that “looking at war(s) from the perspective of people marginalized in global politics reveals war(s) as lived, experienced, and felt, rather than just made or fought.”[iii] In a journal article conversation between Cynthia Enloe and Carole Cohn, Enloe states that she sees,

the “international” as embedded in the national and in the local. And, like you [Cohn], I also see—or, better, have been taught by other feminists to see—the “political” in many spaces that others imagine are purely economic, or cultural, or private.[iv]

Can we identify similarities in the concept of surveillance? How does this play into definitions of human rights of the internet? As panelist Sejal Parmar reminded us, a potential step away from the binary of privacy and surveillance is to instead focus on freedom of expression as a human right and a response to state surveillance. What do we mean by surveillance? David Vincent suggested that it is first of all an act of doing an inspection. The question then becomes what do we do with the information and does knowing they are being watched change people’s behavior?

Internet access points in the home can lead to both freedom of expression and an increased possibility for monitoring and control in the domestic context. Who in our families get monitored and by whom? How do we negotiate privacy and surveillance within our own families? Individual freedom and expression can increase the potential for more individual surveillance. Marianne Franklin pointed out that westernized concepts of private space and abuse, as existing behind locked doors, become blurred when we conceive of the internet as a public space. This is further complicated by differing conceptions of public-ness and freedom around the world. For Franklin, the important point is to understand not just the way we use the internet but that the way it is then used on us.

The binary of privacy/security is also complicated by the ways that private and public spaces are conceptualized on the internet. If the internet is understood as an open and public space, where are the spaces for private communication? What is the interaction between those public and private spaces and ideas of what is necessary, appropriate, justified, accepted, or battled against? Ko Fuji categorized interactions as part of the content layer of the internet. We can make distinctions between what is private and public (blogs, twitter) content. Monroe Price defined these categories of interaction as open terrains of speech where you are talking to the world and closed terrains of speech where you are talking to each other. Surveillance practices, however, do not differentiate between these categories and push at the boundaries between open and closed speech terrains. These boundaries interplay with shifting notions of information regimes and decisions on how to use the media, what qualifies as news, and who or what gets attention.

Governance versus Individual Autonomy

Communication access, as both a form of individual and state power, makes reach and influence possible. Governments and other actors have long competed for control over both the means and content of communication. The first international governance platform of the ITU was formed to regulate telegraph wires for the purposes of interoperability. Over time, the governance of communication systems has evolved and expanded. “Multistakeholderism” has been used to describe how internet governance has become more inclusive of civil society groups and other non-governmental stakeholders. But, who actually has access to a seat at the table and what are the mechanisms for input? (For further reading, see this article regarding the April 2014 multistakeholder meeting NETmundial on internet governance in Brazil).

For panelist, Nishant Shah, discussions on the idea of multistakeholderism as an ideal evoke the ways that the language of multistakeholderism makes the process of becoming a multistakeholder invisible. Some Milton Wolf presentations did the work of making the multistakeholder process more visible. Shawn Powers’ presentation laid out the history of the concept of multistakeholderism, which emerged from 1970s debates about how to share natural resources. Multistakeholderism, according to Powers, can be used to mask structural abuses of power, legitimate powerful actors, and is vulnerable to manipulation. He gave examples of the composition of internet governance groups including Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), The Internet Society (ISOC), and Internet Engineering Task Force (ITEF) to illustrate who is actually participating in these purported multistakeholder groups. Members of ISOC and ITEF were primarily from the private sector, with very little diversity in terms of gender and race. Panelist Richard Hill stressed that some versions of multistakeholderism are actually about the US retaining or expanding its power. For him, the threat to a multistakeholder process comes from private companies and from governments because of their failure to control companies in dominant positions.

Hill also pointed out that the “freedom to connect” is not the same as the right to connect. In her presentation, Madeline Carr explored the US approach to internet freedom as a foreign policy, as typified by Hillary Clinton’s famous 2010 internet freedom speech. The US internet strategy, however, contains several possible contradictions, such as the way that the US deploys technology to undermine autocracies while supporting those same governments. (For more examples, see this New York Times article). The Internet in a Suitcase Project, and mesh networks more generally, are a way to create closed systems for dissidents or those without access to gain access points for communication. This program and others focus on circumventing state censorship and blockages. But access is also about access to commerce. But, again, who controls this access; who benefits; and how are these concerns related to the idea of what the internet represents?

Coverage of Michelle Obama’s March 2014 China visit highlighted her mention of freedom of speech as a universal human right. Hill pointed out that US framing of the internet as a space for freedom of speech in fact translates into the perception that the US is trying to export its ideas of free speech, which allow greater freedom of speech than many other countries. He pointed out that the US simultaneously attempts to export its ideas of intellectual property rights, which, in contrast, are more restrictive that those of some other countries.  As Hill argued, “this can be viewed as somewhat hypocritical and might weaken the message in favor of free speech.” In his view, the restrictions on free speech currently permitted in international law are too broad, so proponents of free speech should be calling for modifications of the existing treaty provisions. According to panelist Ko Fujii, one way around this framing has been for the US to instead talk about the free flow of information or data, which becomes an economic argument. Panelist, Daniel McCarthy questioned whether debate will turn into transparency versus privacy binary as a way to articulate the ways that states conceptualize the free flow of data and define open and closed information. States are interested in articulating both security and capacity; and as social technical systems, telecom policy becomes a primary way to present state identity.  However, both authoritarian and democratic regimes are using the internet for surveillance. Philip Howard questioned whether the binary of democracy -vs.- authoritarianism could be replaced with open -vs.- closed to describe approaches to communication. There are differing conceptions of what is permissible content, who should have access, and who decides these parameters.

Sarah Logan reminded participants that power in the information age is then defined by which sets of norms prevail in terms of access. Daniel McCarthy added that there are also colonial legacies to consider in terms of these power relationships. There are linkages between the different layers of governance and resources and capacity to determine or influence outcomes. Alison Gillwald stressed that there are conflicts between the ideas of universal rights and issues of surveillance that increase state power. These disconnect in the way that market reform is then emphasized over democratic rights, and reforms point to a lack of clarity in terms of the foreign policy of the internet and engagement in global governance debates. These contradictions become material. Panelist Ben Wagner shared a few data visualizations of the material implications of these contradictions including a map that highlighted the export of surveillance equipment from private sector companies in the EU, China and countries in Africa and the Middle East. Thus, access to the internet and the language of creating more access has multiple capacities and contradictions.

Going forward

The discussions during this year’s seminar analyzed how the internet as communications infrastructure and the internet as an ideal continues to develop; highlighted the conflicts inherent in this evolution; and stressed the need for a global conversation about the future of the internet that incorporates varying definitions and contexts. Some of the concepts that complicate current and future conversations about the internet include shifting understandings of private and public space and what it means to have access. Access refers not only to who is able to connect to the internet and information but also who takes part in conversations about how the internet will develop. This discussion links into larger global debates about universal human rights and norms. Governments and non-state actors are using the internet as a way to measure and express power. This reminds us that the ethics and ethos of communication and information flows will continually be under negotiation.

[i] Thussu, International Communication, 58.

[ii] Ackerly, Stern, and True, Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, 7.

[iii] Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict: Toward a Feminist Theory of War, 248.

[iv] Cohn and Enloe, “A Conversation with Cynthia Enloe: Feminists Look at Masculinity and the Men Who Wage War,” 1188.


Willow Williamson is an International Relations PhD student at American University in the School of International Service, where she received a MA in International Media. Her research is focused on public diplomacy, intercultural communication, gender, and technology. She has worked internationally in the fields of multimedia production, education, and computer science, participating in diverse projects that have brought her to Senegal, Turkey and Spain. She also holds a MFA in Composition and New Media from California Institute of the Arts and a BA in Music Composition and Media Technology from Mills College.  Twitter: @willowfw


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