Eaten by the Internet: Putting Internet Infrastructure Power on Your RadarCorinne Cath / Oct 30, 2023
Corinne Cath is a post-doctoral 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 Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge, and editor of Eaten by the Internet, published by Meatspace Press.
To understand power in the contemporary tech industry, we must look closely at the internet’s often-invisible infrastructure. This sizable 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 the operating systems, browsers and computing power that enables connectivity, rarely attracts attention unless something breaks down. And even then, many internet users won’t ask why.
This is surprising, given how often internet infrastructure—rather than data or content that is accessed through this network—features in current debates about Big Tech. Recent examples include the ongoing international struggle between the US and China over advanced semiconductors, or chips; the Russian take-over of the Ukrainian internet, by forcing local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reroute traffic over Russian infrastructure. Or the recent raid by the French competition authority of Nvidia’s offices—a dominant player in the AI hardware and software market. These technologies and companies are key to the functioning of connected devices, including phones and laptops—and they also play a crucial role in the ability of companies to use and train generative AI models, like ChatGPT. Only a limited number of companies produce these key infrastructural components, which puts them in a position of power in shaping our societies to their liking.
Beyond AI and chips, the cloud computing industry comes to mind as a key—yet often overlooked—player. As other academics have stressed, multiple software companies, including Uber and Zoom, have publicly mentioned that they would not be able to function without their cloud providers, or the connectivity providers that allow people to access their apps. Likewise, privacy preserving technologies touted as solutions to invasive corporate surveillance often requires computational and connectivity resources owned by companies known for invasive corporate surveillance. As Dr. Michael Veale, Associate Professor in digital rights and regulation at University College London, writes:
Anyone can run a server, but a small handful of firms have real strangleholds on the large-scale computational infrastructures needed for PETs, including for what devices like phones can do. These include operating system providers—like Apple and Google—browser providers—like Apple and Google—and app store providers like—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 of political power. To do so, I edited a book called Eaten by the Internet published by Meatspace Press. This book focuses on the internet and how the companies providing its technical backbone are transforming our world, from the bottom up. The book includes fifteen chapters contributed by a global set of researchers, activists, and techies. These include the President of the Signal Foundation Meredith Whittaker, renowned misinformation scholar 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’s expert of 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 are building on, and beyond, pioneering academic work in this field. This book considers how market power in the tech sector is rebuilding around the internet’s material infrastructure. Emphasizing the theme of continuity, Suzanne van Geuns draws a connection between the present-day 'pipelines' of internet infrastructure and the online forums that employ them for propagating hate, and the longstanding infrastructure associated with American imperialism in Asia. Indian technologist Gurshabad Grover, in their chapter, contends that there is a pressing need for a deeper understanding of the contemporary and emerging infrastructural mechanisms of government control in Asia, as a means of resistance. And Britt Paris showcases instances of resistance against the appropriation of communal resources provided by local internet cooperatives for the private gain of blockchain firms relocating to rural areas in the United States.
Furthermore, it is evident that internet infrastructure plays a pivotal and growing role in today's conflicts. Ksenia Ermoshina and Francesca Musiani, in their contribution, illustrate how Ukrainians are modifying their digital security practices in response to the Russian invasion. In her chapter on the myriad legislative attacks on end-to-end encryption across the globe, Mallory Knodel offers powerful examples of the constriction 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 locus of defiance and opportunity. Infrastructure is also key to understanding shifts in industry power. Shivan Kaul Sahib illustrates the impact of corporate dominance in internet infrastructure within the realm of online privacy services, effectively transforming privacy into a luxury commodity. Yet, there is hope for an internet infrastructure that serves public values. Mehwish Ansari and Ashwin Mathew both detail the concept of networked tech governance. They emphasize the collaborative efforts of civic organizations, social movements, and informal networks of internet governance experts in combating the detrimental impacts of networked technology.
The book’s chapters cover a wide set of topics, spanning the global politics of content moderation by internet infrastructure to the colonialism inherent in the race to plug the moon, and from the harms wrought by blockchain companies in rural America to the particularities of online censorship across Asia. The authors take on thorny topics, discussing power consolidation in the advertisement and cloud industry, the role of internet infrastructure in the war in Ukraine, and tech’s environmental impact—amongst others. What draws the book together is a loud concern about how internet infrastructure is quietly reshaping societies to the exclusion of public values, and concrete suggestions to resist this development. The book also demonstrates how the internet is transforming in response to its growing infrastructural importance to geopolitics, economic production, and climate change. What the internet is morphing into–a pawn in a game of political chess, a footnote to the cloud’s business model, a play for the moon, for example–is also part of what the various authors attempt to answer. Some of the authors have been invited to elaborate on their ongoing research for Tech Policy Press. In doing so, they will further root contemporary technology debates in the politics of internet infrastructure and urge us to ask: how can we ensure our infrastructures sustain us, rather than consume us?
- - -
Eaten by the Internet, edited by Corinne Cath, is available for order online, or you can download the PDF for free from the Meatspace Press website.