Doctoral Dissertation: Global Internet Interconnection Infrastructure: Materiality, Concealment, and Surveillance in Contemporary Communication
This dissertation addresses the inherent social and political impacts engendered by the materiality of the internet and the societal dynamics of infrastructure. With a focus on the information circulation infrastructure of the internet, this is a study of internet governance and design. Specifically, this dissertation makes a first effort in internet governance scholarship to examine governance by internet exchange points (IXPs). It aims to illuminate sociotechnical aspects of IXPs, and reveal the controversies behind them and the social, political, and public values at stake. For that, the research focuses on the significance of IXPs in terms of three pathways: the rights’ vectors of interconnection deployment, the infrastructural interdependencies between the global North and global South, and the search for bodies in the making of surveillance through internet infrastructure.
Guided by science and technology studies (STS) and actor network theory (ANT) as methods to unveil power relations in loco, and decolonial and feminist studies to build on epistemologies of the South, this dissertation uses qualitative methods, such as ethnography of infrastructure and code ethnography, to investigate primary data, along with quantitative methods to analyze secondary data. The methods involve the analysis of 1) the merging of four IXPs datasets; 2) Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) data of the largest IXP in the global South, IX.br São Paulo; and in the global North, DE-CIX Frankfurt; and 3) ethnographic data collected in Brazil, Germany and Mexico.
The contributions are made along six chapters. In Chapter 1, previous works on IXPs in network engineering are examined, and the dissertation’s theoretical framework, methodology and methods are presented. Chapter 2 shows how Tseltal and Zapoteco communities, in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, are infrastructuring their wireless networks to reach the larger internet, and how the very moment of network interconnection becomes key to understanding the role of internet infrastructure to challenge and co-produce societal values. Chapter 3 examines the development of the first IXP in Mexico City and reveals how the narrative of potential social benefits from an IXP are not realized in a market of low telecommunications and internet competition. Consequently, it exposes the resultant disparity and lost link between an IXP embedded in commercial values and the need for internet access by indigenous communities, distant, not only territorially, from that IXP.
In Chapters 4 and 5, the global North and the global South are analyzed symmetrically in the IXP ecosystem, in order to make visible both the consistent concealment of the South in the study of internet infrastructure and how illuminating its role leverages our public understanding of internet interconnection politics. Specifically, these chapters rebut the paradigm of “free flow” of information revealing that, instead, the internet is marked by a one-way flow in which giant IXPs in the North benefit from both their common interests with big content delivery networks and the lack of infrastructural resources in the South.
Finally, Chapter 6 explores how an IXP becomes an instrument of state surveillance by showing the dynamics of the German state to collect data through DE-CIX, exploiting the design affordances of this giant IXP. By unveiling a case that makes explicit the manufacturing of the “turn to infrastructure to control information” involving public and private actors, the chapter problematizes the extraterritorial effects of a global North country jurisdiction. It also reframes data packets to be conceptually understood as potential information and the virtualization of our bodies that traverse the information circulation infrastructure of the internet attracting the interest of opportunistic actors. The conclusions make recommendations and suggestions for future studies.
This dissertation moves IXPs to a different “mode of existence,” beyond the ones sustained by network engineering scholarship. It touches on key and urgent contemporaneous communication issues, and seek to bring theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions to internet governance policy and scholarship.