Weizenbaum Institute 2022: Surfacing Internet Infrastructure Politics: Reflections on how to study opaque internet politics, problems, and protocols.

The willingness of opaque Internet infrastructure companies, like cloud providers and content delivery network companies, to act on their responsibility as political actors vis-à-vis the public good is key to the debate about tech accountability. This talk will map the changing terrain of internet infrastructure politics and outline additional avenues for studying it, given the often highly technical, opaque, and inaccessible nature of its functioning.

Policy interventions concerning the Internet tend to focus on companies in the content or commerce business: social media companies, online retailers, and so on. But these companies would not function without the support of lower-layer infrastructure companies, “down the stack”, that define how information is accessed and transmitted across the Internet. Over the past years, these lower-level infrastructure companies have asserted themselves in the public debate with renewed vigor. Various such companies, that provide infrastructural services like web hosting and security protection to social media companies, made high-profile decisions that style them as content moderators, political decision-makers, and gatekeepers to the Internet and democratic processes. Sometimes on their own accord and sometimes pressured by governments.

Their explicit political role means academics and policymakers must further consider the role of these companies in the overall ecosystem of internet governance—and develop additional ways to study the concerns, harms, but perhaps also the opportunities that arise from infrastructural interventions in political debates.

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