By | November 18, 2023
Eaten by the Internet: Putting Internet Infrastructure Power on Your Radar

Corinne Cath is a postdoctoral researcher at the Programmable Infrastructure Group at the University of Delft and part of the ALGOSOC consortium. She is also a fellow at the Critical Infrastructure Lab and an affiliate at the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge, and editor of Eaten by the Internet, published by Meatspace Press.

To understand the power of the contemporary technology industry, we need to look closely at the often invisible infrastructure of the Internet. This significant domain, from material components such as cell antennas, clouds, chips, data servers and satellites to less tangible but equally crucial standards and software components, including operating systems, browsers and computing power that enable connectivity, rarely attracts attention unless something breaks down. And even then, many Internet users don’t ask why.

This is surprising, given how often Internet infrastructure—rather than the data or content accessed through this network—features in current debates about Big Tech. Recent examples include the ongoing international battle between the US and China over advanced semiconductors, or chips; the Russian takeover of the Ukrainian Internet, by forcing local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reroute traffic over Russian infrastructure. Or the French competition authority’s recent raid on the offices of Nvidia – a dominant player in the AI ​​hardware and software market. These technologies and companies are key to how connected devices, including phones and laptops, work—and they also play a critical role in companies’ ability to use and train generative AI models, like ChatGPT. Only a limited number of companies produce these essential infrastructural components, which puts them in a position of power when it comes to shaping our societies to their liking.

Beyond AI and chips, the cloud industry comes to mind as a key but often overlooked player. As other academics have pointed out, several software companies, including Uber and Zoom, have publicly stated that they could not operate without their cloud providers, or the connectivity providers that allow people to access their apps. Likewise, privacy-preserving technologies touted as solutions to invasive enterprise surveillance often require compute and connectivity resources owned by companies known for invasive enterprise surveillance. As Dr. Michael Veale, associate professor of digital rights and regulation at University College London, writes:

Anyone can run a server, but a small handful of companies have a real stranglehold on the large-scale computing infrastructure needed for PET, including what devices like phones can do. These include operating system vendors – such as Apple and Google – browser vendors – such as Apple and Google – and app store vendors such as – yes! – Apple and Google.

Rather than, or perhaps in addition to, concerns rooted in data collection and predicting behavior, we should focus on making Internet infrastructure providers further visible as a central force for political power. To do that, I edited a book called Eaten by the Internet published by Meatspace Press. This book focuses on the Internet and how the companies that provide its technological backbone are changing our world, from the bottom up. The book contains fifteen chapters with contributions from a global array of scholars, activists and technologists. These include Signal Foundation Chair Meredith Whittaker, renowned disinformation researcher Joan Donovan, legal scholar Jenna Ruddock, digital rights and EU policy expert Michael Veale, and the founders of the critical infrastructure lab at the University of Amsterdam–Niels ten Oever, Maxigas, and Fieke Jansen, and Oxford University expert on interstellar internet politics Yung Au – to name a few.

The authors carefully articulate the changing politics and political economy of Internet infrastructure. In doing so, they build on, and go beyond, pioneering academic work in this area. This book examines how market power in the technology sector is being rebuilt around the material infrastructure of the Internet. Suzanne van Geuns emphasizes the theme of continuity, drawing a connection between today’s “pipelines” of Internet infrastructure and the online forums that use them to spread hatred, and the long-standing infrastructure associated with US imperialism in Asia. Indian technologist Gurshabad Grover argues in his chapter that there is an urgent need for a deeper understanding of the contemporary and emerging infrastructural mechanisms of state control in Asia, as a means of resistance. And Britt Paris showcases examples of resistance to the appropriation of municipal resources provided by local Internet cooperatives for private gain by blockchain companies moving to rural America.

Furthermore, it is clear that Internet infrastructure plays a central and growing role in today’s conflicts. In their contribution, Ksenia Ermoshina and Francesca Musiani illustrate how Ukrainians are changing their digital security practices in response to the Russian invasion. In her chapter on the countless legislative attacks on end-to-end encryption around the world, Mallory Knodel offers powerful examples of the curtailment of people’s political rights at the behest of governments. These chapters portray internet infrastructure as both a conduit for asserting (colonial) dominance and as a site of defiance and opportunity. Infrastructure is also key to understanding changes in industrial power. Shivan Kaul Sahib illustrates the effects of corporate dominance of internet infrastructure in the area of ​​online privacy services, effectively turning privacy into a luxury good. Still, there is hope for an Internet infrastructure that serves public values. Mehwish Ansari and Ashwin Mathew both describe the concept of networked technology control. They emphasize the collaborative efforts of civil society organizations, social movements, and informal networks of Internet governance experts to combat the harmful effects of network technologies.

The book’s chapters cover a wide array of topics, spanning the global politics of content moderation through Internet infrastructure to the colonialism inherent in the race to drill the moon, and from the damage blockchain companies are wreaking on rural America to the idiosyncrasies of online censorship everywhere. Asia. The authors tackle difficult topics and discuss the consolidation of power in the advertising and cloud industries, the role of internet infrastructure in the war in Ukraine, and the environmental impact of technology—among other things. What draws the book together is a vocal concern about how the internet infrastructure is quietly reshaping societies to the exclusion of public values, and concrete proposals to resist this development. The book also shows how the Internet is changing in response to its growing infrastructural importance for geopolitics, economic production, and climate change. What the Internet is turning into—a pawn in a game of political chess, a footnote to the cloud’s business model, a piece for the moon, for example—is also part of what the various authors are trying to answer. Some of the authors have been invited to develop their ongoing research for Tech Policy Press. In doing so, they will further root contemporary technology debates in the politics of internet infrastructure, prompting us to ask: how can we ensure that our infrastructure sustains us rather than consumes us?

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Eaten by the Internetedited by Corinne Cath, is available to order online, or you can download the PDF for free from the Meatspace Press website.

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