Myth #04: Protocols do not have politics.
Corinne Cath-Speth

Myth: The technical standards and protocols upon which the Internet is built do not have politics. Rather, they are neutral technologies developed by impartial engineers, through apolitical consensus mechanisms, who merely want information to flow and networks to internetwork.


Busted: It can be hard to see the politics of protocols through the fog of enigmatic Internet standardization acronyms. Protocol developers’ penchant for dense abbreviations of abbreviations, like Domain Name System (DNS) over Transport Layer Secure (TLS) or DoT, does not help in that regard. Some background: The Internet runs on a set of technical standards and protocols. The first iteration of the Internet came out of the need for disparate networks to talk to each other. (#15) Internet protocols enabled such ‘internetworking’ to occur by providing a standardized manner for networks to exchange information. These protocols are developed by industry-led standard-setting bodies, like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Many within these organizations hold that protocols do not have politics; protocols are seen as neutral, it’s in how people use them that they have moral and political impact.

This is a myth because it presumes that these technical organizations are somehow detached from their larger context and that protocols are neutral tools. But protocols are built by people, who encode their values, ideologies and assumptions. (#18; #42) Protocols do have politics. The question is: whose? Take DoT as an example: its designers prioritized user privacy over commercial or government access to data about what website users visit. This prioritization, in turn, influences how power struggles between different stakeholders (governments, industry, civil society) over online information flows materialize.

The inherent ‘politics of protocols’ is hardly surprising to those experiencing or studying its effects. In his landmark 1980’s essay, Langdon Winner showed that technology is not value neutral, as it reflects distinct moral and political choices. More recently, Laura DeNardis argued that protocols have politics because they mediate social and political values through technology, which in turn shape society. Likewise, communities affected by protocol design – whether representing specific disability justice concerns around website accessibility or broad human rights concerns like privacy – have highlighted the inherent politics of protocols. Yet, among many in the technical community the myth that protocols do not have politics persists, sometimes to the detriment of Internet users.


Truth: Upholding that ‘protocols do not have politics’ is inherently a form of politics, because it implies a commitment to the status quo – which often aligns with Global North values and industry interests – driving Internet standardization. It also overlooks how Internet standardization occurs within distinct cultural, economic and political conditions. Protocols have politics and further critical engagement with the consequences of these politics is needed.


Source: Laura DeNardis, Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance (Boston: MIT Press, 2013); Corinne Cath and Luciano Floridi, The Design of the Internet’s Architecture by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Human Rights, Science and Engineering Ethics 23 (2017) 2, 449-468.