The Limitations of Protocol

On: October 31, 2011
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About Erik van Mastrigt
Received my BA degree Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam in summer 2011. Took part in the MediaLAB Amsterdam and together with three other students, we realized the first augmented reality exhibition in the Netherlands, commissioned by the Stedelijk Museum. Worked for MKB-Nederland on the question whether they should extent their political lobbying by using new media. Besides studying I spend time on training/coaching an Under 17s football team and my part time job as a taxi driver at a reliable company :) I like mobile devices, gadgets, politics, photography, history, human behavior, Prague, Scrooge McDuck and coffee.


Internet is often praised for allowing people to speak up and publish freely, rather than opinions are suppressed by higher powers. On the one hand, everyone has the ability to start a blog and publish whatever they like. On the other hand, not all publishing platforms are that free as some think internet is. Every user has to agree with general guidelines in order to be able to publish at all. Signing up for an internet account means that you have to agree with the rules and terms of your internet provider. If you want to publish on a certain forum, you must comply to their conditions as well.
Theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker approach these issues with the concept of protocol, a set of understandings and agreements in order to let different parts of a whole communicate with each other. They claim that ‘protocol is less about power (confinement, discipline, normativity) and more about control (modulation, distribution, flexibility)’. In this article, I will discuss their approach of protocol and its relation to power and control.

Galloway and Thacker consider protocol as an technological issue rather than thinking in political terms. Protocol is a control apparatus that governs the rules and standards within a network. It is the way two computers communicate with each other. To put it simply, if one computer only speaks Chinese while the other is only familiar with English, both are not able to understand each other. Even though users hardly notice anything about protocols, everyone uses often ones like HTML, FTP, SSL, TCP/IP and so on. These types of protocols are not real time monitored by the rulers of the system, but could considered as a self-working apparatus governing all infrastructures within a network. Protocol is primarily an organization model for informatic networks, but Galloway and Thacker also apply the term for biological ones. Different parts within a human body can interact with one other by the ‘genetic code’ and ‘biochemical information’. For instance, if a donor organ’s code does not match the body’s, the organ will be rejected by the body’s system. Thus, protocol is not an exercise of higher, human powers, but rather functions as a totalized apparatus to control distributed networks. I will focus on internet-based media as being the most relevant distributed, informatic network in this case.

The difference between power and control can partly be derived from Galloway and Thacker’s point of view on the definition of protocol. ‘Power’ is something exercised by human interference, allowing surveillance in order to maintain discipline. Michel Foucault recognized many social institutions in his model for panoptical surveillance. Imagine a large, circular building with in the middle one central tower. The circle is divided into separated cells. From the tower’s point of view, a guard can see what is happening in each cell. However, each inmate can not see the guard so they will not notice whether the guard is looking or not. This idea results in the inmate’s continuous awareness of surveillance, while the guard might even not looking. In order not to get punished, the inmate will behave normal. ‘Control’ is more like an automatic system to check everything that is going on. Mark Poster calls this a superpanoptic system where surveillance is replaced by dataveillance. The database decides whether a user is allowed to communicate with the server’s content rather than a guard watching everyone trying to login. The notion of discipline disappeared since surveillance is replaced by a set of standards and rules within the apparatus. For instance, if someone reaches his credit card limitation, a central database will reject every new payment request until the card holder raised his bank account. The credit card protocol is controlled by an apparatus deciding which payments should be allowed.

Layers embedded in protocol
As Galloway and Thacker argue, there are several layers of protocol. When someone connects to the internet and requests a webpage (e.g. by his browser, he already committed to a number of different protocol layers. The upper layer is the application layer. In the case of loading Google’s homepage, my computer and the server agreed to use the HTTP protocol used for visiting general webpages. The second layer takes care about the transport of data. While entering a search query, the transport layer (TCP) makes sure the query will arrive at the right destination. Third, there is the Internet Protocol (IP). This layer only concerns about the actual move of data. Another type of this protocol is the former popular IPX protocol, mainly used for home or business networks until the mid 1990s. The last layer is the link layer that is basically the hardware connecting each node (e.g. telephone wires). Thus opening a simple website will lead the user through different layered protocols. Switching from the web browser to an BitTorrent application only implies a switch from the HTTP protocol towards BitTorrent’s one. The other three protocol layers remain in tact. So far, I can agree to Galloway and Thacker’s claim that protocol is mainly about control rather than power. Just like Poster’s superpanopticon the four protocol layers control people’s communication instead of supervising it. Does this conclusion mean that there is no surveillance in protocol at all?

Examples of protocols in the application layer are HTTP, FTP, RSS, POP3, BitTorrent, SSH, IMAP and so on. They all adopt the TCP/IP protocol to apply their own set of standards on. A regular website is embedded in the HTTP protocol in order to display the page in the browser as expected. The interaction between the actual user and the application starts when an url is requested. This is the first stage where the user can do something without being restricted by predefined protocols within the application layer. In general he will be able to request any site he wants. Now imagine that one would like to enter a forum community running on the phpBB forum software. The administrators have predefined their set of rules and standards, thus the database primary checks whether the user can get access and which permissions he owns. The database may allow him to open new discussion topics and comment on others, but can deny access to the administrator’s control panel. This example shows that within the application protocol, another layer of standards and rules can be distinguished. If the forum protocol does not allow regular users to perform certain actions, access will be denied if one tries to.

However, not all sets and standards could be implemented in the forum’s database. If you have a discussion forum mainly about football, a topic about sustainable farming might not be very welcome. Also if one user violates norms and values, the predefined control protocol will not always recognize this. To ensure each user behaves well, so called moderators are permanently surveilling. Moderators, or even administrators, are users having more powers than normal users. They are able to punish a user if one does not follow the forum’s rules and objectives. Besides the moderators, each user can report posts containing misbehaves.
Because of the hierarchy in different types of forum users, which do not have equal powers, the control apparatus is not the only one ruling the community. A forum’s protocol is to a certain extent about control, but power is still important. Administrators and moderators can create exceptions to the standard set of rules. Even though a user initially deals with control, power is able to overrule the system.

Forum software like phpBB shows an example of how a Web 2.0 application deals with power and control. The protocol in these many-to-many communicating systems control both all data traffic and are being supervised by their moderators. However, this is not the way each internet-based application works. One could distinguish four types of internet-based communication, each using a different balance between power and control. The first type is few-to-many communication. Regarding power, this is mainly the same as discussed in the forum example. Only a few users post to a certain website, while everyone is able to read it. Because the content is public, there is little control needed besides the regular protocol layers. The second type is few-to-few (or one-to-one) communication. Protocol in terms of control are highly important since they have to authorize the user to perform actions. The content is not public, whereby the exercise of power is almost unnecessary. Power in applications like MSN Messenger, e-mail and Google Docs is merely absent. Third, there is many-to-few communication. This type is a bit harder to explain, but BitTorrent is pretty close. Many nodes sharing the same file can provide one user’s download. The exercise of power is absent, it is all about the protocol maintaining the connections. One could say that the system is ruled by its infrastructure. I have already discussed the fourth type of communication: many-to-many. In BitTorrent’s case, there is a bit overlap with this last type since many seeders can provide many downloaders at the same time.

The four types of internet communication show a certain pattern. The more users are able to receive a platform’s content, the more exercise of human power is present. If a news website is viewable for public, the power is in hands of the few posting articles on it. Within a forum community, a few moderators check the behavior of the multitude. Control is mostly used to check individual users whether they are allowed to perform certain actions. It seems that the fewer recipients, the less power is being exercised. Protocols like e-mail and MSN are merely made for private talks. Due to the distributed structure of the BitTorrent network, power is practically absent. This analysis does not mean each user is free to do whatever they like within those platforms. There is always a chance that federal units or your internet provider snoops on your data traffic if they suspect you are dealing with illegal business.

In conclusion, is protocol more about control and less about power as Galloway and Thacker claim? On the one hand, there are four different protocol layers which are all about control. Galloway and Thacker approach the definition of protocol on a technological manner rather than a political one. Technological apparati can real-time check whether the input complies to the predetermined set of standards and rules. On the other hand, diving deeper into the application layer as well as into the applications itself, different levels of exercising power will appear. Forum content is often more moderated than BitTorrent’s data. It depends on the particular application whether the user has to deal with power. Secondly, human powers are always able to cut the protocol for whatever reason they have. However, Galloway and Thacker’s claim is justified as long as you stay in the technological approach of protocol and leave political influences behind.


Foucault, Michel. ‘Docile Bodies’. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 135-150. Print.

Galloway, Alexander, Eugene Thacker. ‘Protocol, Control and Networks’. Grey Room. 17 2004: 6-27. Print.

Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information. Chicago: UCP, 1990: 69-98. Print.

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