Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Internet Architecture of Gender / Decoding the Layers

The internet, like any new technology, has a disruptive effect on society and governance. As Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project says, “For a while, when its effects are new and unanticipated, it empowers in a relative sense some actors at the expense of others. This relative empowerment alters the composition of interest groups, further promoting political change.” (1)

The rise of the internet economy has occurred at a time when the gender gap has actually been increasing in many indicators of highly developed countries, which is somewhat of a surprise to those who believed that the second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s had born legitimate fruit.

It seems, on reflection, that legislation of equal opportunity and the rhetoric of empowerment has failed to have any effect in some crucial areas, most noticeably computer science, ICTs and engineering, where the numbers of women in higher education and employment have actually declined since the 1970s. (2) 

an example of gender division by workplace from The Guardian, UK.

Technology is not gender neutral although much of the rhetoric, like the end to end principle, simplicity and net neutrality, obscures this. Technology is socially shaped. As Hrynyshyn says, ‘values are embedded in a technology through a social process of the interaction of different groups of relevant actors who are involved in the process of design…. Often what is not recognized is that the decision about the development of technology are made by agents with different locations in structures of social power, and the different locations create differences in the extent to which different agents are able to participate successfully in the process of social shaping.’ (3)

I am taking a social shaping of technology approach to this situation (as described by Mackenzie and Wajcman, Williams and Edge), where at every stage in the development of a new technology a decision is made, a fork in the branching logic paths is taken that incrementally changes the direction of development, and of necessity excludes some directions. As Lessig puts it in Code 2.0, 'The ‘nature” of the Internet is not God’s will. Its nature is simply the product of its design. That design could be different.’ (4)

I am using the Layers Principle as adapted by Solum and Chung from Lessig’s work, and endorsed by the WSIS in 2005, for my analytic framework. The six layers that constitute the Internet are:

• The Content Layer—the symbols and images that are communicated.
• The Application Layer—the programs that use the Internet, e.g. the Web.
• The Transport Layer—TCP, which breaks the data into packets.
• The Internet Protocol Layer—IP, handles the flow of data over the network.
• The Link Layer—the interface between users’ computers and the physical layer.
• The Physical Layer—the copper wire, optical cable, satellite links, etc. (5)

These layers were defined for internet governance but also serve as a way of examining how different structures have evolved in seemingly comparative isolation from other layers and how these isolated instances are part of the interrelated whole. How the internet has created a society in which women, in many important areas, are further from equality and self determination than they were in 1960. How we can decode the layers of gender discrimination to see how the architecture of the internet limits our global society.

(The Internet Architecture of Gender / to be continued....)

2. Maria Klawe, Telle Whitney, Caroline Simard, "Women in Computing - take 2" (February, 2009). Communications of the ACM. Volume 52, Issue 2. Inspiring Women in Computing. Pages 68-76. ISSN:0001-07682. Available at

3. Hrynyshyn, D, "Globalization, nationality and commodification: the politics of the social construction of the internet" (2008) New Media and Society. Volume 10 (5): 751-770. Available from

4. Lessig, L. "Code 2.0. Chapter 4: Architectures of Control" (2006) Available at:

5. Solum, Lawrence B. and Chung, Minn, "The Layers Principle: Internet Architecture and the Law" U San Diego Public Law Research Paper No. 55. Available at SSRN:

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