Social Trust in Internet Infrastructure


From its inception, the Internet has held the promise of creating more democratic societies, by bringing people across the world into conversation and closer relationships with each other. Yet it seems that hardly a day goes by without a data breach, concerns about “fake news”, or newly discovered vulnerabilities in the computer systems that we use every day. The contradiction between the hope and the reality of the Internet forces us to ask: how can we build an Internet that we can trust, and through which we can trust each other? And to what extent, and in what ways, is such an Internet possible? In my work, I engage with the problem of trust in the Internet through ethnographic research into the social relationships and practices involved in operating Internet infrastructure.

In our everyday use of the Internet, we often think of it as a single technological object, which mediates access to an array of services and content for billions of people across the world. But beneath this apparently seamless whole lies a complex global infrastructure, composed of tens of thousands of interconnected computer networks, operated by independent organizations, distributed across every country in the world. The creation of a secure and trustworthy Internet depends upon effective coordination of activity across these diverse technological systems, operated in a variety of social, economic, geographic, and political contexts.

Global governance institutions can address some of the problems in the coordination of Internet infrastructure. For example, the ICANN regime manages the allocation of critical Internet resources, and the IETF develops technical standards for the Internet. Contractual arrangements between organizations can also help resolve some of these coordination problems. However, as I found in my research, while governance institutions and contractual arrangements are necessary for the effective coordination of Internet infrastructure, they are insufficient in themselves.

By studying the practices of the technical personnel involved in the operation of Internet infrastructure across organizations in North America and South Asia, I discovered the essential role of interpersonal trust relationships in enabling coordination across organizational and territorial boundaries. Technical personnel who manage the interconnection of computer networks rely upon interpersonal trust relationships to manage a range of activity, from the stable operation of network interconnections, to the negotiation of market arrangements for these interconnections. Information security personnel rely upon interpersonal trust relationships to maintain the confidentiality of new vulnerabilities and emerging threats, while coordinating to respond to these issues. Organized technical communities and conferences (such as NANOG in North America, and SANOG in South Asia) offer critical sites through which practices and trust relationships are formed, and circulate within and across regions.

As my research shows, Internet infrastructure offers invaluable lessons for understanding the role of trust in operating a complex sociotechnical system. To create an Internet which supports trust, we must pay attention to the role of trust in the operation of infrastructure, as much as to the services, content, and users of the Internet.

Ashwin J. Mathew is an ethnographer of Internet infrastructure. His research is supported by positions at Packet Clearing House, the UC Berkeley School of Information, and the Slow Science Institute. Mathew was the winner of the iSchools Doctoral Dissertation Award for 2016.