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Reading :: Networks and States

Posted by: on Mar 3, 2011 | 4 Comments

Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance
By Milton L. Mueller

A few years ago, I read Milton Mueller’s excellent book Universal Service, which became an important resource in my 2008 book. So when I saw this book, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. I am, of course, glad that I did, because the book is terribly relevant. For instance, as I was reading Mueller’s discussion of how countries can exert control over their citizens’ Internet access, Mubarak cut Egypt’s Internet access.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Mueller is interested in Internet governance, like Cowhey et al (a book he cites), and how it interacts with citizens’ freedom, like Benkler (another book he cites). Mueller’s a clear-eyed realist with a strong understanding of how governments and regulations function, so he avoids – and critiques – the excesses of some who believe that the Internet will simply cause people to be more free. Rather, he says, he’s interested in the question of global Internet governance; “the problem of Internet governance has produced and will continue to produce institutional innovations in the global regulation of information and communications” (p.2). The Internet, he says, puts pressure on the nation-state in a number of ways:
  • “it globalizes the scope of communication”; (p.4)
  • “it facilitates a quantum jump in the scale of communication”; (p.4)
  • “it distributes control” so that control is “no longer closely aligned with political units”; (p.4)
  • “it grew new institutions“; (p.4)
  • “if changes the polity” because lower costs and higher capabilities of group action mean that “radically new forms of collaboration, discourse, and organization are emerging” (p.5)
Mueller sets about examining how “these factors are transforming national control and sovereignty over communication and information policy” (p.5). He overviews a set of literatures that address these changes:
  • Networked governance: “Governance networks are defined as relatively stable articulations of interdependent but operationally autonomous actors,” he explains. In this literature, “Networked forms of organization are said to consist of looser affiliations of organizations and individuals that rely on regularized interaction to pursue cooperative goals. The bonds that hold the nodes together, so the theory asserts, are based on the reciprocal benefits that can be achieved by affiliation and cooperation – not on a division of labor defined and enforced from above” (p.6). Mueller sees this literature as speaking to how “networks that combine state and nonstate actors can overcome some of the limitations on government based on territorial sovereignty” (p.7).
  • Commons-based peer production: “Peer production describes how producers of open source software or content such as Wikipedia rely on nonhierarchical, largely voluntary collaboration techniques within a nonproprietary legal framework and a ubiquitous networked infrastructure” (p.7). He relates this literature to how ISPs respond to security threats.
  • Multistakeholderism: “the opening up of state-based international organizations to participation by ‘stakeholders’ besides governments” (p.7). He adds: “It might be described as the pluralization of international institutions” (p.8).

Mueller finds these ideas useful, but approaches them critically (p.8), testing each to see what it can contribute to the question of global Internet governance.

Chapters 2 and 3 are some of the most valuable chapters for me, because here Mueller attempts a taxonomy of networks. “Network has become a trendy term,” he acknowledges, and asks: “When we talk about ‘networks’ are we talking about technologies, or societal organizations, or both? Or are we simply projecting the latest metaphor into any and every kind of social relationship we can see?” (p.17). Mueller introduces three cases in Chapter 2, then uses these in Chapter 3 to separate and taxonomize two uses of “network” in the social sciences: a formal analytical technique (“network analysis”) and a theory or metaphor of social organization (network as an organizational form) (p.31). These can interact powerfully, he argues (p.31), but “they need to be carefully differentiated and kept distinct” (p.32).
He first describes network analysis (p.32), and cautions us: “Note that this method finds ‘networks’ anywhere and everywhere. … The fact that this analytical method can be pplied to anything does not mean that the world is more networked than it used to be, nor does it necessarily herald the existence of some new kind of society or organizational form” (p.33).
In contrast, the notion of network-as-organizational-form is “more complicated,” developing out of many disciplines. Mueller further taxonomizes this understanding of network:
  • Production networks. “In economics and economic sociology, network has come to mean a mode of governance that differs from managerial hierarchies and markets” (p.34). He explains how “In the 1980s, theorists began to observe looser affiliations among multiple firms – outsourcing, franchising, research alliances, and other semi-autonomous relations – and to discuss how this phenomenon fit into the market-hierarchy dichotomy” (p.31). Although “the initial tendency was to describe them as hybrid organizational forms somewhere ‘between markets and hierarchies,'” sociologist Walter Powell argued that they constituted a distinctive organizational form “based on the relationship rather than the transaction” (p.34).
  • Peer production. In contrast, the peer-production view of networks is of “networks as a form of organization for production,” in which an infrastructure of “ubiquitous, powerful networked information technology … dramatically reduces the cost and magnifies the scope of establishing relationships based on the reciprocal benefits of association” (p.35). Mueller cites names that are familiar to readers of this blog: Adler, Benkler, Raymond, Rheingold, Shirky. Although “Benkler’s concept of peer production sounds very similar to Powell’s network organization,” Mueller argues, the two are distinct: “the linkages between participants are usually not based on what Powell calls the relationship; in other words, interpersonal familiarity and trust. The relationship can be relatively autonomous and automated” (p.36). Mueller says that “one can think of peer-to-peer networks as a massively scaled-up, technologically driven version of the network organizational form – Powell on steroids” (p.36) and concludes that “peer-to-peer networks occupy an extreme space in any typology of network organizations. They might be considered a pure form or ideal type that reflects the full capabilities of the Internet” (p.37).
  • Political networks. Here Mueller turns to network literature in political science. In this literature, “Originally, policy networks were conceived as relatively small and stable sets of corporate actors drawn into regularized interaction around a set of laws and regulations in a specific sector” (p.38). Such networks were seen as “an unconsciously formed clustering pattern” (p.38). Later, the concept was “broadened to include looser kinds of relationships, known as issue networks,” and later “transnational advocacy networks (TANs)” (p.39).

In later literatures, networked forms of organization and policy networks were melded (p.40; cf. Ronfeldt et al. on the Zapatista netwar).

So, Mueller concludes, we see two distinct meanings of network in the social sciences: as “a loose but bounded and consciously constructed organization based mainly on leveraging the benefits of reciprocity” (i.e., “network organization”), and as “an unbounded and decentered cluster of actors around repeated patterns of exchange or contact” (i.e., “associative cluster”) (p.41). Mueller describes two dividing lines between these: “Network organizations have a well-defined point of access and must explicitly decide on criteria for including and excluding participants. Associative clusters lack both features” (p.42). Network organizations are designed; associative clusters are de facto and relatively stable. Importantly, Mueller says, associative clusters have no agency: any “governance is a byproduct of many unilateral and bilateral decisions by its members to exchange or negotiate with other members” (p.42). To understand Internet governance, Mueller says, “we need both concepts of networks as a form of organization, but we must not confuse them” (p.43).
Mueller provides a nice table describing his taxonomy of networks and comparing them by specific features (p.44). He also examines how associational clusters might move toward network organization and then to hierarchies: conflict or negotiation over the distribution of benefits (p.46). He argues that
we can identify four ways in which the network organizations and associative clusters formed around the Internet might lead to institutional change:
1. By formalizing and institutionalizing the network relations themselves
2. By states’ attempts to impose hierarchical regulation upon networked forms
3. By states’ utilization and adoption of networked forms
4. By changing the polity; namely, by realigning and expanding the associative clusters around governance institutions (p.46)
Moving on. In Chapter 4, Mueller deploys this network taxonomy to examine the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which represents “a clash between two models of global governance: one based on agreements among sovereign, territorial states; the other based on private contracting among transnational nonstate actors, but relying in some respects on the global hegemony of a single state” (p.55). In Chapter 5, he describes how WSIS “experimented with efforts to make international organizations more open and democratic by facilitating the participation of nonstate actors,” leading to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) (p.81). In Chapter 6, he examines the IGF in more detail, particularly its embrace of multistakeholderism (p.107). And in Chapter 7, he examines the clash between two “IPs”: intellectual property and Internet protocol (p.129).
Chapter 7 leads naturally into Chapter 8, about security governance. And although we may associate security with hierarchies, he argues, “the residues of hierarchy are becoming entirely dependent upon the network relationships of peer production to have any effect”: Hierarchical actors must integrate into the “looser transjurisdictional, multistakeholder networks of operators” to do any work (p.173). And that gets us to Chapter 9, Content Regulation. Here, Mueller argues that the Internet “took the libertarian principle of ‘absence of prior restraint’ and globalized it” (p.185). A critical challenge, he says, is “a concept of freedom better suited to the system of large-scale, automated content generation, interconnected autonomous systems, and highly differentiated layers of access characteristic of the global Internet” (p.189).
Let’s skip a bit. In Chapter 11, Mueller provides quadrants for understanding Internet polity. The axes are Transnational/National and Networking/Hierarchy; the quadrants are Denationalized Liberalism, Networked Nationalism, Global Governmentality, and Cyber-Reactionaries (p.256). And he argues that these quadrants can help us to understand what’s going on right now. For instance, he says, “The nature of the political spectrum is profoundly changed when we are forced to make the territorial state a variable rather than a constant. … The standard right-left spectrum does not provide reliable guidance on some of the basic institutional questions” (p.259). He provides various examples, then argues that we can’t do without some form of “cyber-libertarianism,” because cyber-libertarianism flags two problems:
  • who should be sovereign, the people accessing the internet or the territorial states to which they belong?
  • to what degree do “classical liberal precepts of freedom get translated into the context of converged media, ubiquitous networks, and automated information processing”? (p.268).

He argues that a territorial, democratic nation-state “doesn’t scale to global proportions” (p.268), and “the answer to that dilemma may lie in the upper-left quadrant of the political space – a denationalized liberalism” (p.269). (Dedicated readers of this blog – if there are any – may detect some resonance with Phillip Bobbitt’s work.)

Overall, the book was fascinating. I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time on Mueller’s frameworking on networks, since I thought he did a stellar job here and I’m quite interested in that aspect right now. But if you’re more interested in Internet governance or global institutions or public policy, you’ll find valuable things here as well. And if you’re interested in how nation-states are being challenged by global communications, certainly the book is directly applicable. Definitely pick it up.


  1. David Ronfeldt
    March 4, 2011

    many thanks for this discussion, clay. particularly for focusing on the contrasts mueller draws between network analysis and networks as organizational form. i’ve been trying for over ten years to call attention to the contrasts between these two views and to field similar points, usually without success.

    the contrasts may be seen in some discussions about the dynamics of the networking behind the protest movements in north africa and the middle east. for example, i’ve seen an academic social network analyst argue that these networks are likely to evolve (devollve?) into hierarchies of some kind. in contrast, activists are intent upon sustaining their networks as a distinct and viable form of organization. meanwhile, few of the discussants are aware that two contrasting views of networks are in play.

    i must get ahold of this book. it’s good to have company on this matter, and to learn that he provides an extended elaboration.

    i remain a dedicated reader of your blog.

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    March 4, 2011

    Right! I've been returning to that distinction you made, which seems so critical for understanding what people are talking about when they say “networks.” Way too much slippage here, so people tend to put folks like Granovetter, Castells, and Latour in the same pot. I'm thinking about writing a framework essay about it, actually, although it would mostly end up amplifying the points that you and Mueller make.

    onward 🙂

  3. David Ronfeldt
    March 5, 2011

    i hope you do write a framework essay like that. it would help provide more attention to and traction for the underlying points.

    i've even wondered lately whether the all-encompassing view of social network analysis might, in some ways, be as much a hindrance as a help in understanding the rise of the network form.

  4. Social Network
    August 12, 2011

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