Proposal – National Webs and Continental Institutions in the African Atlantic

The global scope of digital communications technologies arises in concert and conflict with the international institutions, policies, and market conditions that sustain the development and implementation of each layer of that technological stack. From transfer control and internet protocols to the cables themselves that provide their physical backbone, each element of contemporary information/communication technologies has undergone significant deliberation and evolution. While adoption of mature, stable ICTs continues to grow, it is not yet a fact of life for the vast majority of the world’s citizens. However, the negotiations of global governance institutions over these technologies, both private and transparent, have lasting impacts on the conditions of access to new communication opportunities and the ability to implement technological responses to developmental, political, economic, and social problems at the local level.

One such constraint is expressed in the form of “national webs,” or the mapping of Internet layers and access points to political geographies. Though the fundamental architecture of the Internet in Europe, Eastern Asia, and North America has historically relied on broad distribution of network links and an overabundance of available routes for information in the physical, network and transport layers, this structure cannot be taken for granted, and may be more dependent than was previously realized on the political and institutional constitution of the countries in which those networks arose, including a strong emphasis on implicit public-private partnerships between telecom companies, universities, and governments. Indeed, in authoritarian regimes from pre-revolution Libya to contemporary Iran and Syria, among many others, the network architecture supporting Internet access is far more likely to have “choke points” at which information can be literally cut off from entering the (usually state-owned and -controlled) physical infrastructure.

Other manifestations of a broad and nuanced spectrum of infrastructural control and correlated institutional histories abound, from the so-called “Great Firewall of China” to the ongoing battles between various federal regulatory bodies in the United States over who will hold jurisdiction and oversight responsibility over the Internet’s many layers. Ongoing international trade and property-rights negotiations, therefore, have immense potential to affect the course of digital communications institutions. The roots of national webs also arise out of extrapolitical factors, including linguistic relationships, economic conditions, and diasporic communities, including those of religious or ethnic groups. We can understand national webs in terms of political boundaries, then – but also in terms of cultural identity.

In Western equatorial Africa, the balance between fluidity and rigidity of national borders and cultural identity is particularly pronounced. It emerges in this region, with its troubled history of both French and British colonialism, and its subsequent struggles with post-colonial state-making, anticolonial in origin but taking place along political borders drawn by that colonization. Contemporary national economies of the region are exceedingly complex, marked by ongoing transitions between agrarian and industrial production, liberalized and state-controlled markets, rapid growth and crippling stagnation. Telecommunications policy in the region includes mandates for state control, monopoly, duopoly, limited competition, or full competition, depending on the service provided and the country in question. And in terms of real hardware on the ground, personal computer use in the region is still minimal, available to only a small fraction of people there on a regular basis. Internet access remains smaller still, barely in the single digits across coastal populations of the countries here. Further, the Anglophone countries of this region – Ghana and Nigeria – are discontiguous, instead bordering Francophone countries – Togo and Benin – between them. Yet internet traffic continues to grow at an immense rate between Ghana and Nigeria, along with online commerce and trade. The formation of international institutions in the region has followed these patterns, with negotiations taking place largely between Anglophone or European corporations, these two Anglophone governments, and the world governance bodies along with the International Telecommunications Union. At stake in these negotiations, many of which take place in private, are the conditions of access, transparency, and inclusion that will impact available knowledge and resources to millions of people in the region. The national boundaries and cultural assumptions brought by the major players to these tables has as-yet unclear relationships to those peoples’ collective and individual interests. This leads to the central question proposed for this research paper.

How does nationalism, in particular, affect the institutional environment supporting the construction of the internet’s infrastructure and core architecture in Western equatorial African?

The paper would answer this using a combination of research methods: First, an analysis of extant telecommunications policy, concentrating on the descriptions and roots of nationality and national identity, would ground the study in its context. Then, a cultural geography of the technological resources and patterns of the area, drawing on openly available data from the region, would provide a nuanced view of how technologies are being built on the ground, and allowing the paper to compare these patterns to the terms of high-level negotiations. Third, lessons from computer science, in particular from network architecture and systems architecture, allow us to explain and interrogate the technical decisions made during the internet’s construction here. Finally, an institutional history approach to the combined results of the previous three methods, to trace the changes over time of these comparisons between institutional environments and the empirical outcomes in the region. Rather than isolate each country in an individual case study, though, the paper would strive to observe regional-scale interactions throughout its undertaking, to view the In a phrase, the paper would construct a well-rounded internet architecture of the region.

There are several possible answers to the question put forward for this paper. It may be the case that nationalism’s role is negligible, or entirely indiscernable based on these methods, in the construction of the internet in the region. On the other hand, nationalism may be found to play a central purpose in shaping the negotiating positions of governing bodies, in identifying the structure and rules for digital communications networks, and in supporting or constraining economic transactions and patterns such as the emergence of internet service providers. And there may be something else entirely uncovered by this research, in which nationalism’s role is not so clearly defined as to make other elements of technology or communications dependent upon itself, nor to be seen as dependent on the outcomes of technological development. Regardless of the outcome of the study, though, it would aim to provide a clearer view than has been put forward before of the interaction between cultural politics of identity, continental-scope institutions, and key communications technologies in the region in question.

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