Detailed Research Plan

The project will explore the infrastructuring of democracy by connecting three aspects of digital infrastructures to the legal and political processes through which these unfold. They will be studied in the context of one thematic controversy central to each aspect of the infrastructure and through a focus on Brazilian cases. The thematic controversies speak to different professional communities and orient the work around specific problems, so as to facilitate the interdisciplinary conversation. This research plan—summarized in the figure below—has been devised specifically to suit this call. It combines exchange workshops with doctoral and post-doctoral research. The workshops will focus on the thematic controversies with researchers from the project and beyond as well as with relevant professionals. The case studies will contribute to these workshops and be informed by them. Separating code, content, and circulation disentangles related but analytically distinct aspects of digital infrastructures. Code is the language of the internet that infuses all infrastructuring processes. Code is, therefore, integral to law and politics even if both exceed code. Content and circulation are, respectively, the substantive and procedural aspects of infrastructure that are both the subjects and the objects of law and of politics. Thus acknowledging the interconnection between digital infrastructure, on one hand, and law and politics, on the other, paves the way for recognizing the imbrication of legal and political processes inside digital infrastructuring. The main research work of the project will consist in conceptualizing and empirically analyzing these legal and political infrastructuring processes, focusing on their implications for democracy.

We propose to trace these interrelated processes by connecting each aspect of digital infrastructure to one thematic issue area, with each constituting one work package (WP I-III). For code, content, and circulation we analyse respectively the thematic controversies around the accountability of algorithms, data protection, and encryption. To gain empirical depth we also conduct one Brazilian case study related to each thematic controversy. The cases we focus on are:

  • WP I – code/ algorithmic accountability: the controversy around Facebook’s use of algorithms to take down two million posts in May 2018 without the court order required by the Marco Civil’s provision regarding intermediary liability Article 19 (law 12.965/14);
  • WP II – content/data protection: the multiple controversies originating in Wikileaks and culminating in the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff; and
  • WP III – circulation/encryption: the controversies surrounding the role of Whatsapp groups in public debate, first in 2016 when it was repeatedly blocked and later in the 2018 electoral campaign.
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