Ready for the next chapter

Last month, I successfully defended my dissertation on Internet policy and LGBTQ expression online – I can’t believe my Ph.D. journey has come to an end and look forward to the next chapter. I posted the abstract below. In the following months, I will be working on peer reviewed articles building on this research. I also developed several policy recommendations and will also publish a report discussing them in more detail.

Internet Policy Designs as “Infrastructures of LGBTQ Expression” – Internet Governance as a Minority Rights Issue

Abstract

Scholarship on LGBTQ expression online has primarily focused on the opportunities and challenges awaiting LGBTQ people in the digital sphere. This dissertation addresses the distinct issue of Internet policy designs governing LGBTQ expression, privacy and safety in the online environment. The project examines how both government and private actors shape the policy infrastructures underlying LGBTQ expression. Furthermore, this research explores the role of civil society actors and online users in intervening in debates over policy designs. Viewing minority expression online through a lens of Internet governance and STS (science, technology and society) studies, discussion focuses on how Internet policy is moving to the center of debates over LGBTQ expression.

Research is based on a mixed methods approach. Qualitative interviews with Internet policy experts, advocates and a select number of industry representatives explored the extent to which government and private entities account for the needs of minority users such as LGBTQ people in Internet policy debates. A policy analysis of companies’ privacy policies and user agreements and analysis of other organizatonal materials added further support to these objectives. Complementing these qualitative approaches, a quantitative content analysis of user-generated content posted to Yelp and other review services investigated the extent to which online users repurpose platforms to express dissent, as well as the role of Internet companies in arbitrating these conflicts based on their user policies. Research findings informed several policy recommendations that could help create Internet policy designs supportive of minority users.

In the context of public policy, results indicate that LGBTQ expression can become both an intentional and unintentional target of censorship, exemplified by content blocking efforts under Russia’s “anti-propaganda” laws and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in the United States. Results further suggest that policy debates on Internet governance issues such as global phenomena of data localization requirements and net neutrality rulings have significant implications for LGBTQ people, highlighting the need for greater attention to minority users in these debates.

In regards to company policies, the project discusses mainstream Internet companies such as Facebook and Google as well as Grindr and other geolocational dating apps catering to LGBTQ communities and their role in arbitrating user rights. A first example illustrates debates over the termination of Facebook user accounts in violation of the company’s real name policy, as well as the influential role of San Francisco’s drag community in bringing the issue to public attention. Discussion of Grindr and other LGBTQ dating apps shows how these companies mediate tensions between creating community networks and privacy and safety concerns arising out of geolocational data collection. Analysis of review services as platforms for LGBTQ dissent indicate that non-transparent policy enforcement mechanisms allow for little insight into companies intervention in social conflicts playing out on these sites. Policy recommendations for a minority friendly Internet include greater user control over personal data collection, increased collaboration between industry actors and minority advocates, as well as greater public and industry commitment to end-to-end encryption.

New article: Internet governance by social media platforms

My scholarly article “Internet governance by social media platforms,” co-authored with my mentor, Dr. Laura DeNardis, was just published in the journal Telecommunications Policy. Below is a short abstract – As always, I would be excited about comments and feedback.


In scholarship on Internet governance, much attention has focused on the role of global institutions like ICANN as well as the policy decisions of nation-states and intergovernmental organizations in keeping the Internet operational and mediating citizen rights. More recently, scholarship has turned attention to the role of private intermediaries in governing civil liberties online. The current study examined transparency reports, user policies and technological design choices of dominant social media platforms to demonstrate their role in promoting and constraining values related to privacy and anonymity, free expression and innovation.

Results suggest that the data collection procedures underlying the platforms’ business models pose a significant challenge to values of privacy and anonymity. Relying on the disclosure of aggregated user data to advertisers and other third parties, these platforms reserve the right to collect user data ranging from personal information like names to metadata like IP addresses and locational data. Despite their immunity from liability for user content in the United States and various other countries, social media companies have also come under attack for intervening in political conflicts by censoring speech that complies with their policy designs. In the area of permissionless innovation and interoperability, social media companies and their policy designs undermine users’ ability to innovate. On a more fundamental level, the lack of open technical standards underlying these platforms also poses a threat to Internet interoperability, a value that has played a vital role in the evolution of the Internet.

The role of social media platforms’ policy and technological designs in mediating civil liberties not only has significant implications for global citizens’ abilities to participate in the digital public sphere, but also for the future of democracy. More research on this phenomenon is needed to understand how the constantly evolving policy and technological designs of these platforms shape the future of citizen rights online.

L. DeNardis, & A. M. Hackl (2015). Internet governance by social media platforms.Telecommunications Policy.

The Mediation of LGBT Expression Online – The Beginning of my Dissertation Journey

It’s been a very exciting academic year and I just defended my dissertation proposal – I am very happy about starting the next chapter of my PhD journey and work on my dissertation! In my dissertation, I examine the various mechanisms of control that foster and constrain LGBT speech and identity expression online. Under the invaluable guidance of my dissertation Chair, Prof. Laura DeNardis and my Committee members Prof. Kathryn Montgomery, Prof. Deen Freelon and Prof. Jessie Daniels (CUNY, Hunter College), I have developed my ideas and will be spending the next ten months researching LGBT expression online and developing policy recommendations that can hopefully help foster LGBT expression in the digital public sphere. One of the challenges I faced in writing my proposal was conceptualizing LGBT expression. After some in-depth research on LGBT identity expression in historic context, I conceptualized LGBT expression as the ability to speak freely and access LGBT related content, the ability to express one’s identity and under protection of one’s privacy as well as the ability to organize as a community and challenge those with anti-LGBT sentiments.

censorship

photo credit: Cory Doctorow/flickr, The Problem with Censorship is XXXXXXXXX, CC BY-SA

Based on this understanding of LGBT expression, I will examine the various mechanisms of control that foster and constrain LGBT identity online. These forces include national laws and cultural understandings around LGBT rights, business decisions of private industries, social norms and the underlying infrastructure that allows for expression (e.g., Balkin, 2014; Katzenbach, 2013; Lessig, 2008). Rather than viewing the underlying infrastructure as neutral mechanisms providing equal opportunities for expression, I will draw heavily from science, technology and society (STS) studies to highlight the political nature of Internet infrastructure (e.g., Sismondo, 2008). I am very excited about starting my dissertation journey and will share research findings and other news on my blog. As always, I am excited about feedback, comments and questions.

References

Balkin, J. M. (2014). Old-school/New-school speech regulation. Harvard Law Review, 127(8).

Katzenbach, C. (2013). Media governance and technology: From “Code is law“ to governance constellations. In M. Price, S. Verhulst & L. Morgan (Eds.), Routledge handbook of media law (pp. 399-418). Abingdon, NY: Routledge.

Lessig, L. (2008). Code version 2.0. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Sismondo, S. (2008). Science and Technology Studies and an engaged program. In E. J. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch & J. Wajcman (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (3 ed., pp. 13-32). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Connect 4 Life

The LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute just announced the launch of Connect 4 Life, a program providing homeless LGBT youth with free cellphones and subsidized service. By the end of this year, a pilot program in three different cities will provide a limited number of homeless LGBT youth with first cellphones. To help the organization better understand the unique needs of homeless LGBT youth, I wrote a short White Paper which can be accessed here.

Research Fellowship

Exciting news – this summer, I will be working as a Research Fellow for the LGBT Technology Partnership. I’m really excited about this opportunity to be working on some meaningful research that will hopefully help to make some LGBT-friendly policy recommendations. During my fellowship, I will also continue to write blog entries for the Partnership, which can be found on their website. As always, I’m happy about feedback and comments!

U.S. Transitioning Control over Critical Internet Functions – What are the Implications for the LGBT Community?

Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced it would transition control over critical Internet functions to the global community, envisioning a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. In a guest post for the LGBT Technology Partnership, I discuss how the leadership over tomorrow’s Internet will shape LGBT visibility.