Interview with Francesca Musiani on Internet governance and the role of the p2p practices
Francesca Musiani is a researcher at the Institute for Communication Sciences (ISCC), a research unit of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris-Sorbonne, and University Pierre and Marie Curie. She is also an associate researcher at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation of MINES ParisTech-PSL.
She is currently a member of the Commission « Rights and Liberties in the Digital Age » established by the French National Assembly in June 2014, outreach officer for the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet), and co-chair of the Emerging Scholars Network of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (ESN-IAMCR). She is a member of the editorial board for the journals Tecnoscienza, RESET and Journal of Peer Production, and academic editor for the Internet Policy Review, online journal of the Berlin-based Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft. Francesca was the 2012-13 Yahoo! Fellow in Residence at Georgetown University and an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Francesca’s research work focuses on Internet governance, in an interdisciplinary perspective blending, first and foremost, information and communication sciences with Science and Technology Studies (STS). Since 2008, this research has explored the distributed and decentralized approach to the technical architecture of Internet-based services, so as to understand the co-shaping of these architectures and of several different dynamics: the articulation between actors and contents, the allocation of responsibilities, the capacity to exert control and the organization of markets.
Francesca’s work has also explored, or is currently investigating, peer production and the sharing economy (European FP7 project P2Pvalue, 2013-), digital heritage (ANR project WEB90, 2014-), authorship and writing practices in the digital age, the processes of « industrialization » of Internet users’ contributions, net neutrality, ICT-related socio-technical controversies and online dispute resolution systems.
Tell me a little bit about your practice and research interests?
Currently I’m a researcher with the French National Research Council. I’m pursuing work in what is broadly conceived as ‘Internet governance’ and have for a number of years now. By broadly conceived I mean I have a larger definition of what constitutes governance than the traditional political science understanding.
Can you clarify what’s a more traditional understanding of governance and how your approach is a little different?
A more traditional understanding of Internet governance relates to institutions at all levels from inter-governmental organisations to supranational organisations such as ICANN and IGF and including expert community organisations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Along with these I’d include private sector practices such as automatic or semi-automatic governance by algorithms as practices that inform Internet governance. I also include some dimensions of user practices and design and the re-appropriation of material aspects of the Internet as forms of ‘governance’. The day-to-day practices of network governance also include these more informal means of norm-making.
Would you describe those informal practices as p2p practices?
Yes, most of them end up being in the realm of sharing, collaborative and cooperative practices. But these informal network practices are also shaped at various stages of the innovation cycle by institutional and algorithmic governance.
What initially drew you to work on Internet governance?
I started to work in Internet governance about ten years ago with my master’s thesis. I actually started with the traditional view of network governance. When I started thinking about my master’s thesis topic it was the first year of the IGF. It was a moment in which the multi-stakeholder label as applied to Internet governance first came into being and became part of the discourse of practitioners, policy makers and researchers. I thought I wanted to research that a bit more. My more recent work is dedicated to following, almost ethnographically, some of the design and innovation processes that are currently shaping Internet governance systems.
This stemmed from a realisation that the institutional procedures of International governance weren’t all there was to Internet governance and there was an important aspect that was informal, including both the private sector and user’s influence in the Internet landscape.
Some of your research has been about the co-shaping of Internet architectures and social practices and dynamics. How do you map these relationships?
When I first got interested in decentralised architectures I was looking for ways to narrow the focus of my work around Internet governance i.e. starting form the fact that specific devices and systems have decentralised architectures and focus in on them. Had I enlarged the study to many different facets of p2p, it would have been too broad. I wanted to see if I could say something specific about what decentralisation at a technical level meant for p2p practices.
Is it always the case that decentralisation at one level implies decentralisation at other levels?
I’ve done some recent work with my ISCC colleague Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, to elaborate a typology of peer production arrangements. We take a number of dimensions relevant to those platforms: the technical architecture; the governance; the ownership of the means of production; the ownership of the result; and value generation; and we observed the relative level of centralisation and decentralisation of these different dimensions. This is an approach that can help to show that in the same system some dimensions may be decentralised while others may be centralised. In fact, this pertains to most crowd-sourcing or collaborative platforms, where at the level of technical infrastructure they are anything but decentralised, but at the level of practices they may be – I mean, what’s more decentralised than organising to have a complete stranger on your sofa? And vice versa. You can take a platform and see how these dimensions fit for that platform.
So you’re constructing a kind of stratification of p2p systems to explore how different modes of governance operate at different layers. Even if there is a tendency to openness and/or decentralisation at one level there may be enclosure or centralising tendencies at others?
Yes. It’s possible and probable that not all of the different layers are on the same side of the spectrum.
The questions you’re asking are really key in that area, such as how does topology enable or constrain different social practices. This is a key question that needs to be asked. When you look at the different layers, as you’re doing, this equation becomes problematized.
It’s also a great example of how a rigorous approach from Sociology or Science and Technology Studies (STS) has a lot to contribute to research in p2p practices.
I would say that this particular piece of work is not exactly STS. When we did the literature review for our typology article we did have some STS literature related to architectures and politics, but also previous attempts to construct typologies in different fields, from environmental governance to participation. I’m not sure if what I’m doing here, specifically, is STS given that the discipline usually refrains from categorization and systematization in favour of “thick descriptions” of specific cases. So I’m not sure if I fit into my main discipline of reference here — and actually Melanie, my collaborator, is a legal scholar. But overall, my core approach is indeed STS, trying to bring ‘situated practices’ of Internet governance into the picture.
You’ve explored the relationship between P2P and privacy.
Further into my research I became interested in the effect that technical architectures had on personal data treatment and how you could achieve different means of privacy protection through architecture instead of, or in complement to, policy. So that was something that was a common preoccupation of the projects I examined. For example, data protection is currently in the hands of corporations and determined by what they are willing to give you as a contact in return for free services. So what else can we do?
So potentially these decentralised architectures that you came across could help to support user control of data?
Yes, to the extent that they “repatriate” data. In these projects, there is a tendency to be able to do more on user’s computers than we could before, such as encryption, or fragmentation of data before it is spread out to the network of peers, so that nobody, unless they possess a cryptographic key, can reconstruct an entire file or data packet.. The hard part was sometimes to figure it all out, as someone whose computer science knowledge is very uneven and for the most part, self-taught, but overall it was an interesting project.
So I know Freedombox is about developing personal servers, but I’m not familiar with Cozy Cloud.
It’s not the first of its kind but due to the particular media moment it’s had a lot of exposure. It’s about fragmentation, distribution, and user-hosted cloud alternatives.
Tell me a bit about your involvement in the journal of peer production. You were involved in setting it up?
I was not on the founding team, but I’m on the editorial team now. Mathieu O’Neil is effectively the editor in chief; he’s the one that most frequently takes initiatives. Then there’s Johan Söderberg, Maxigas, Me, Nate Tkacz and Sara Tocchetti also.
I’m happy with the journal. There was a bit of rocky start with some hosting problems. Now we don’t have to chase people to do special issues; people have plenty of ideas for how the idea of peer production can fit with issues – there’s been a special issue on gender and another on alternative internets. There are new submissions all the time. It’s obviously a timely topic to deal with.