Making the Unaccountable Internet: The Changing Meaning of Accounting in the Design of the Early Internet

by   A. Feder Cooper, et al.
cornell university

Contemporary concerns over the governance of technological systems often run up against compelling narratives about technical (in)feasibility of designing mechanisms for accountability. While in recent FAccT literature these concerns have been deliberated predominantly in relation to machine learning, other instances in the history of computing also presented circumstances in which computer scientists needed to un-muddle what it means to design (un)accountable systems. One such a compelling narrative can frequently be found in canonical histories of the Internet that highlight how its original designers' commitment to the "End-to-End" architectural principle precluded other features from being implemented, resulting in the fast-growing, generative, but ultimately unaccountable network we have today. This paper offers a critique of such technologically essentialist notions of accountability and the characterization of the "unaccountable Internet" as an unintended consequence. We explore the changing meaning of accounting and its relationship to accountability in a selected corpus of requests for comments (RFCs) concerning the early Internet's design from the 1970s and 80s. We characterize 4 phases of conceptualizing accounting: as billing, as measurement, as management, and as policy, and demonstrate how an understanding of accountability was constituted through these shifting meanings. Recovering this history is not only important for understanding the processes that shaped the Internet, but also serves as a starting point for unpacking the complicated political choices that are involved in designing accountability mechanisms for other technological systems today.


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