Sandvig to speak on "Alternative Infrastructure"
Christian Sandvig will appear with Greg Elmer, Phillip Howard, and Andrew Clement at a panel entitled "Internet Regulation" to be held at the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers in October, 2007.
The late American politician Thomas ("Tip") O'Neill, Jr. famously said, "all politics is local." In 1996, John Perry Barlow described the Internet to lawmakers as a place as governed by "unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by your impositions." Most perspectives on Internet politics have disregarded both sentiments. Studies of the Internet have focused on national or international developments, laws, treaties, and formal political occasions (like elections). At most, Internet politics is seen as a new way for the individual to relate to these distant structures. This paper, in contrast, considers the local and unwritten: the sphere of local associations and grassroots action where people decide which Internet-related laws and formal structures to obey or endorse, and which formal structures to ignore or resist.
Since the beginning of the Internet, people have worked to develop decentralized technical and political alternatives to it. Historical examples range from the "alt." hierarchy on USENET to the development of UUCP as the "poor man's ARPANET," to AlterNIC and the introduction of unsanctioned domain names (like ".porn"). These sorts of projects often serve the same needs as the sanctioned substitutes they replace. Some of the most interesting alternative projects have been local ones: attempts to build a second Internet that obeys different political rules (or one that obeys different technical rules for political reasons).
Using recent research about grassroots wireless Internet projects as an example, this paper reviews the local development of alternative infrastructure and its political implications, including informal governance, independent network providers, and electronic civil disobedience. It evaluates the degree to which these alternative Internet systems are viable sources of power for their participants - the basic meaning of the word "politics." Specifically, it find that these alternative networks can be an entrepreneurial means of entry into an otherwise restricted market, or a method to bring pressure for features and services on existing carriers. These benefits of "protest infrastructure" seem to be far more important than any actual success that alternative infrastructures may have at meeting their own stated goals to provide viable independent service. In addition, the paper reflects upon the function of alternative infrastructure as a means of expression and discussion of local norms and values, and reflects upon the ways in which local alternative infrastructure vary across political contexts
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