Digital Culture and Communication

The Digital Culture and Communication section of ECREA

“Private actors control both the knowledge and security structures” – an interview with Dr Monica Horten on internet policy

Dr Monica Horten serves as an independent expert with the Council of  Europe, and sat on the Committee on Cross-border flow of Internet traffic and Internet freedom. She  writes regularly about internet policy on her blog. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Media and Communications department of the  London School of Economics and Political Science and has just published the book “The Closing of the Net” (2016; Wiley). Her main interest in this book are the entanglements of large corporations and the state in the field of internet policy. At the centre of her analysis lies an investigation into how the increasing influence of global corporations comes at a high cost of individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom. We interviewed Monica as part of our DCC interview series.

 

Can you explain your field of expertise and your current interests?

My field of expertise is in policy matters related to the Internet. I have always had a focus on the public interest in this policy area, especially concerning human rights and how they intersect with the Internet. I’ve looked at various case studies where human rights concerns arise in the Internet context, including the 2009 Telecoms Package, the Data Retention Directive, and various instances of copyright enforcement. In pursuing these cases, I’ve had to look into corporate influence over policy, since it seems to lurk behind all of these initiatives. My research is currently divided between Internet freedoms and corporate power.

 

Your new book, ‘The Closing of the Net’ discusses the ‘structural powers’ of the Internet. Could you explain what you mean by this?

Structural power is a theory developed by the former LSE professor Susan Strange in the 1980s. Strange identified four structures of power – knowledge, security, finance and production. I am using the first two in this book. Strange said that the knowledge structure is about the person who has the ability to control access to knowledge. They control the means of access, and its storage and transmission. This of course, includes access to information and culture. It’s about the ability to express democratic speech. The person who controls the knowledge structure also has the ability to deny access, as well as to allow it. I suggest in the book that this is an important concept in relation to what is happening in the Internet today.

In the book, I argue that there are two knowledge structures in the Internet – the network infrastructure and the large content platforms. The network providers control the transmission of knowledge and the means of access to it, on a global basis. The equipment they use to manage the networks has the capability to impose restrictions by denying access to content and users. Similarly, the content platforms control the means of storage and retrieval of knowledge. They determine the way that information is presented, and have the power to delete it, hence they have the power to deny access.

The security structure is about the person who has the power the threaten or preserve our security. In the Internet context, I interpret this as the ability to threaten or preserve privacy. Both of the knowledge structures have this power. They hold it by means of the data that they collect and store. The way they process this data, or transfer it to others, may either protect privacy or threaten it.

 

Your book reflects on how ‘large network providers’ are attempting to influence the public policy agenda. Could you explain how this works and what the outcome may be?

In liberal democracies, much of what we know as the Internet is operated by private companies. Those private actors tend to be large corporations. In the book I argue that these private actors control both the knowledge and security structures and that they have the power to use those structures to restrict access to knowledge or threaten our privacy. That is why their political influence becomes important – especially when they want to take actions that impact on our fundamental rights. These corporations seek to exert political  influence in order to protect their perceived interests. Specifically, they turn to governments to get laws changed. Their interests may not be the same as the public interest. If they perceive their interest to be in restricting access, then they will ask for laws that will permit them to impose restrictions. Generally, because of the nature of what they are seeking, these processes are not transparent. The effect may well result in a form censorship, although many would argue that this is not the intent. I argue that there is a public interest in knowing what they are seeking to do, and in some form of democratic accountability.

 

Although you have been thinking about ‘structural powers’, could you also eloborate on how they may effect the everyday Internet user now and in the future?

Think about the display of content on a smartphone screen. Smaller than the traditional postcard, this screen is the way that many people today receive their news, entertainment and personal communications. The size implies a limitation on what people can see. When the large platform corporations, such as Facebook, are using ‘personalisation’ techniques to determine what is available on the user’s screen, this is potentially also a limitation on the content available to that user and hence it implies a form of censorship – even if you consider that this is a benign form of censorship, it is still placing a restriction on access to knowledge and information. Likewise, if the network operators take decisions about what content can go in the “fast lane”, the implication is that other content will either be in the “slow lane” or it will be expensive to access. Instead of the open network that we have become used to, it will be a restricted network. The data that is used for personalisation is also sought by States for intelligence purposes. Equally, the data that is used to manage fast or slow lane traffic could also be of interest. In that regard, the relationship between States and corporations becomes important to the user.

Now consider all of these three factors together. The less-than-a-postcard size smartphone screen, is taking information from a network provider who has a preferential deal with a content platfom, who is in turn limiting the available content. Both network provider and content platform are mandated to supply data to the intelligence services. I think the everyday Internet user might at least want to know that this is happening, even if they choose not to mind.

 

Considering your field of expertise, could you reflect on the important questions to come in the future for Internet policy?

I think that the question of corporate power will become ever more important, because the knowledge structures have become globally dominant. There will be issues of jurisdiction, and of public accountability, as well as constitutional and human rights. Copyright, which has been my focus, has been the first to challenge these structures, but in future the same issues will be relevant across all communications policy initiatives.

 

Interview by Sander De Ridder, DCC delegate in YECREA

See Monica’s blog iptegrity.com for further reading.

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