What is the Critical Infrastructures Lab?
The Critical Infrastructures lab is hosted by the University of Amsterdam. From the website we learn that the lab aims to create space to co-develop alternative infrastructural futures that center people and planet over profit and capital by establishing a community around three infrastructural subtopics (geopolitics, standards, environment), producing a sound body of research and developing actionable policy recommendations and strategic insights.
The lab is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Internet Society Foundation and Omidyar Network and led by Fieke Jansen, Niels ten Oever, and Maxigas, aiming to bring together activists, advocates, scholars, policymakers, and industry actors. The launch event was very much presented as a vehicle for this bringing together, a call for participation rather than a presentation, and it gathered a broad range of interests. I met several PhD students and young researchers including one from Glitch, a research interest group focused on information controls, a host of STS and Media Studies scholars as well as representatives from different regional and international funding bodies with particular interests in rights and democracy (see the Open Technology Fund for a particularly interesting example although there were many others), and plenty of computing experts.
Some take-aways from the event
As the agenda shows, this was a full two days. I will first comment points taken from notes according to speaker or workshop before offering a few personal impressions. My comments are in italics and all points represent my own interpretation of the speakers’ meanings.
Marieke de Goede, Dean of the Humanities Faculty
Points: The politics of infrastructure is a hot topic at the moment due to its relationship with high-level geopolitics. Infrastructures embody the political rationality that holds at the time of their development. They are sometimes seen as passive vehicles used for hegemonic projects, but we should think about the agency of the structures, routes available and affordances. Infrastructure plays a role in shaping and enabling sociality, and can be more or less inclusive or exclusive.
Point: The Netherlands and its infrastructure is a legacy or product of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company)(discussion of the implications of this point, particularly in terms of power and exploitation ran throughout the event, part of which took place in the former VOC headquarters). Infrastructural thinking is sometimes very visible. In the Netherlands we find cycle paths, while in Germany cyclists use the roads and wear helmets.
Points: How can we imagine people-centred infrastructures? Do we have to think in terms of infinite infrastructure? Contemporary conflicts are infrastructural (a demonstration of this argument was later offered in a presentation on day 1).
Paul Keller: Imagining the Future: what should the next European Commission do?
After an overview of the EU policy-making structure and the European Digital Infrastructure Fund white paper we were divided into groups to discuss how the EU could move towards the non-acceptance of censorship (from an infrastructure perspective).
Points: An overarching goal could be that of democratizing infrastructure. The application of national law to infrastructural cases is problematic. Legal responsibility within infrastructural process is poorly defined. Legislation is sometimes seen as a dampener on innovation. Where does the money that is required for infrastructure investment come from? Funding has strings attached in terms of propriety but also influence in geopolitical terms. Can the EU gain or maintain access to data if processing and storage infrastructure is based externally? Does the current approach focus too much on data rather than on what the EU wants to achieve as a goal?
Using the example of RuNet (the Russian internet), Ermoshina described how a decentralized network of networks that was well connected to the outside world became the subject of censorship between 2012 and 2019.
Points: The relationship between standardization as both a means of control and as tools for empowerment. Laws were enacted before capabilities had reached a level at which they could be applied, while resistance led to standardization. This standardized system was then used by the government in the newly occupied Crimea as the digital infrastructure was rerouted through providers based in Russia.
Linnet Taylor: Migration information infrastructures: power, control and responsibility at a new frontier of migration research
Points: Migration tracking should not only be seen as a technical infrastructure problem. Academic research is funded with the aim of developing systems that aim to control migration, raising legal, ethical and social justice issues. The systems are being developed and tested on populations that have reduced legal rights, but are justified in terms of security. The speaker called for a move towards advocacy questions.
DongShuXiSuan: East to West computing resource transfer project
Points: There is a relationship between growth in computational power and GDP (a geopolitical issue). There are blurred boundaries between the state and multinationals in terms of ownership of power and capital, but this group has absolute dominance. A select group of infrastructure stakeholders are also included in this group, but representation is restricted.
Clément Perarnaud: The EU and internet standards: beyond the spin, a strategic turn?
Perarnaud offered a short history of the relationship between the EU and standards, describing an uncoordinated approach that left the development of standards to markets and technical actors.
Points: How has this approach transformed practices and what are the implications for the EU vision of open internet? A strategy that is interested in sovereignty is a major priority. Investment aims to lever and secure the deployment of EU standards as broadly as possible (see DNS4EU for an example). The EU is torn, as it is committed to open internet but also to sovereignty. There is the legitimation of a discursive push towards a state centered vision of internet standardization. A new policy vision around internet openness is needed. The importance of vendors should not be understated.
Matvienko gave an incredibly moving presentation in which she described her experiences of living in Ukraine through the Russian invasion.
Points: Ukrainian citizens are living in a terror environment. During her time in Ukraine she was often asked for comments about disinformation, but saw and commented on the transformation to a terror Environment. An environment is wholistic. Pollution is a weapon of war. The population is doubly targeted, through terror and through information (terror is informationless). The transition from information to terror is visible (beheading of Ukranian soldiers as an example). There are 2 vectors: international-imperial (based on differences, communicational) to colonial-imperial (based on terror, non-communicative). The construction of a place of imminence, but without the population knowing what is about to happen or when.
The lab receives core support from the Ford Foundation in order to research and develop evidence-based policy for the creation of a more equitable digital infrastructure, and it was refreshing to see the Senior Program Office Michael Bannon being offered space to address the audience. Bannon not only offered the space I might add, but introduced as a partner. He explained that the Ford Foundation funds the lab in order to investigate the importance of infrastructure in working to alleviate inequality.
Corinne Cath presented Loud Men Talking Loudly: exclusionary cultures of internet governance (available to download here), a case study based on participant participation within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). As the title suggests (taken from a quote recorded during the fieldwork) the report does not make for pleasant reading and as a result the presentation was also rather bitter.
Points: The four primary findings are: 1. Denial of politics in technical discussions leads to empowering corporations while disempowering civil society. 2. Procedural openness as a distraction delegitimizes civil society critique of industry influence. 3. Reliance on informal networking marginalizes minority voices through exclusion from social circles. 4. Abrasive working practices enables sexism and racism to persist, hindering civil society.
Thomas Streinz presented Thinking Infrastructurally about Open Source Software: Maintenance, Legal Technologies, and Institutional Design.
Points: There are three key discussion fields: thinking infrastructurally, law and global governance and publics and publicness, and three challenges: infrastructural evolutions, geopolitical tensions and regulatory paradigm shifts.
Yu Hong presented on cyber geopolitics through the lens of global digital China, discussing structural backgrounds, geopolitics of the cybersphere (related to governance) and digital transformation.
Points: In China there are linkages between communication and economic restructuring. There is a shift towards reclaiming communism. There are limitations to the geopolitical perspective if global China’s historical global meaning is not understood. To what extent is digital global China refashioning globalization?
Julian Ringhof: EU digital diplomacy: digital technologies, standards, and regulation in times of geopolitical upheaval
An interpretation of how the EU is thinking about the geopolitics of technology including some of the conundrums.
Point: EU agreements need to be flexible.
Andreas Baur: Reaching European stars with American clouds: rooting European digital sovereignty in Gaia X
Points: Gaia X aims to create the next generation of data infrastructure for Europe, its states, its companies and its citizens. What are the implications of including US stakeholders in Gaia X?
Alexandra Dirksen: The Russian conflict and its impact on the Web PKI
Russia’s reaction to Western sanctions (introducing a domestic certification authority) was no surprise. Attempts by domestic actors to control local building blocks of the internet are regularly documented. The fact that major internet actors react differently to these operations may lead to users around the world having different security guarantees. This repeatedly raises questions such as “How does one deal with local threats to users’ digital rights?” or “Is it permissible to judge and when should one intervene?” And most importantly, “Who exactly is in a position to judge?”
Points: The internet is a (possibly the largest) global critical infrastructure used by almost everyone in the world, but unlike other critical infrastructures, there are still many unanswered questions about roles and a lack of common definitions.
Personal Thoughts and Impressions
This was a very well-organized event, the company was stimulating, the food was good and the choices made in terms of hosting spaces was inspiring given the subject matter. The days were well paced with lots of short breaks that not only helped in maintaining focus but also sociality. The event also included a DIY electronics jewelry workshop, so we were all well adorned. A real pleasure to attend.
Much of the ‘compéring’ was carried out by Niels ten Oever who did a fantastic job of making what were sometimes very technical concepts understandable to those of us who were not familiar with this type of infrastructure vocabulary. The grouping of the workshops and panels into the three subtopics (geopolitics, standards, environment) meant that any participant could either follow a path or dabble across topics.
Day 0 also included a remarkable multimedia performance of analogue trance-techno (my definition) from speaker Svitlana Matviyenko, just one example of the breadth of multidisciplinary artistic, cultural and technical expertise of those present.
The points of reference offered during the presentations and workshops were very different from those used in my regular field of responsible innovation. One speaker refered to the question of European values (as used in EU literature) questioning how they could be defined, but other than that I heard no references made to RI literature and the terms RI and RRI were not used. I feel that this is a missed opportunity as infrastructure (in all forms) and its development is integral to innovation, its distribution and planning should be part of the RI debate, and RI thinking and critique should be applied to such developments. The double play on the use of the adjective critical in the lab title (noted by ten Oever) that infrastructure is critical (in terms of needs) but that we should also critique its development and the roles it potentially plays would certainly support such an argument. Infrastructure should embody critique as well as the political rationality mentioned by de Goede in her opening speech.
As regular readers will know, the Foundation has collaborated with the Region of Lombardy Forum for Research and Innovation within which discussion of many different types of regional infrastructure has been central. In this case infrastructure is perceived of as regional or territorial, and its governance is approached as if it were so. My attendance at this event has led me to believe that it should not be too much of a leap to think about how a co-creation approach such as that promoted by the Foundation through the Forum could be theorized from a global infrastructure perspective, given that our regional infrastructure should undoubtedly be seen as glocal rather than merely local.
The impact of the presentations that discussed the Russia/Ukraine conflict and in particular that of Matvijenko were easy to both see and feel, as they brought conflict to the infrastructure table in all of its brutality. During the breaks I walked up and down the canal outside the VOC building, a lovely sunny day, Amsterdam full of tourists, an old Jewish area. Across from the VOC building there is a large white house, with brass cobble stones in the road to mark the arrest and deportation of the two jewish families that had lived there during the war. Stopping to look at them I read the dates, and discovered that 6 out of the 7 members of these families had been arrested over the period of a year. They had not all been taken away together, but one at a time. First a member of one family, then a neighbour, then another member and so on. This situation is very similar to that Matvijenko described in Ukraine as a terrorism of imminence, waiting for the worst to happen, informationless, in this case victims of a regime that could make use of high-quality civil infrastructure records.