The Fight for a Fair and Free Internet

More

mackinnon-consent-of-72-dpi.jpgWhen Rebecca MacKinnon was working for CNN in Beijing from 1992 to 2001, she and her fellow expats expected that the coming age of global networking would strongly undermine the Communist Party's grip on the reins. But a decade later, she writes, "I grew to believe that we were naive." The Internet is not the stepping stone to democracy she had hoped.

In part, that's because citizens aren't the only ones building the net. Corporations and governments are shaping its space and its power, and oftentimes in ways that work against democratic goals. In her new book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, MacKinnon issues a call to arms for the people of the Internet. "The Internet can be a powerful tool in the hands of citizens seeking to hold governments and corporations to account -- but only if we keep the Internet itself open and free."

I asked MacKinnon a couple of questions about Internet freedom, government and corporate power online, and the recent online protests against the SOPA legislation. You can read an excerpt from her book here.

One of your most fundamental insights in the book is that "the Internet is a human creation." It seems that this is something we often forget, believing that the Internet is a natural, open playing space with little structure other than what we build there. Can you say more about what you mean by this and what are the risks we face as a result?

Most people who use the Internet seem take its nature and characteristics for granted, like we take air and water for granted. Your relationship with air and water -- what you can do with it or within it -- is for all practical purposes an unchanging fact of nature. What you can or cannot do with or on the Internet, however, is the result of specific decisions and actions by individual human beings who hold different motivations -- be they political, cultural, social, academic, economic, or business motives. The actions themselves take different forms: programming, engineering, design, business, or legislative. These decisions and actions determine things like how much privacy you have, how easily your digital activities can be tracked and by whom, how your online identity relates to your offline identity, and to what extent you can have more than one online persona.

The fact that anybody can create their own software programs and use them on the Internet, or plug new devices into the Internet, without having to obtain permission or license from any authority is the result of conscious decisions by the people who first created the Internet: decisions that could have been made differently if those creators -- working mainly in the United States in the late 60's -- had been working in a different political and cultural context.

The basic technical protocols that have enabled the Internet to work in such a globally interconnected way are developed and shared openly by a community of engineers. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the computer code that led to the creation of the World Wide Web in 1990, he did not try to patent or charge fees for the use of his technology. Instead he shared it openly, enabling a rapid expansion of web pages across the Internet, which became the basis for most of the Internet's commercial value, and all kinds of innovation that he couldn't have anticipated.

How the Internet evolves from here on out similarly depends on the choices being made by programmers, engineers, business managers, corporate lawyers, lawmakers in legislatures around the world, regulators, police, military, and national security authorities, activists, investors, consumers and ultimately all technology users. It will favor whoever is most active in shaping it to their liking.

The threats to our digital rights seem to come from a combination of corporations and governments. How are these two sources of control similar and different? How do they relate to one another?

Governance is a way of organizing, amplifying, and constraining power. The point of democratic government is that we give up our rights to do absolutely anything we please at any time to anybody in exchange for order, security, services, and also the protection of the rights of weak or unpopular minorities against majority mob rule. The political processes of modern democracy -- however imperfect -- are supposed to be a way of confirming and re-affirming that government is operating with the people's consent. Constitutions, independent judiciaries, and other structures are supposed to constrain the abuse of power and hold government power accountable. Control that has no basis in the public interest is illegitimate -- although exactly how one defines "public interest" and "legitimate" control is always a matter of passionate debate in a democratic society. In authoritarian states the "public interest" and the control required to maintain it is generally not up for debate in any meaningful way.

The purpose of corporations is of course different than government -- they exist to make profits for their shareholders and along the way generate employment and create products and services that have value to consumers. As far as most governments are concerned, corporations are the generators of economic growth and creators of employment -- two important factors affecting their own political viability -- and hence power.

Governments of course have the power to regulate corporations, but in this globalized economy many large multinational corporations have more economic power than many countries with revenues much larger than some countries' GDPs. This gives corporations a great deal of power to shape the lives of workers and consumers around the world, and this was already a trend before the Internet became so commonplace. In some countries, certain mining or oil and gas companies have more power over many people's lives than local or even national government.

But corporations that create and operate Internet platforms, services, and systems of networked devices have added another layer of control. They exercise a form of "governance" over our digital lives in that their programming, engineering and business decisions shape what we can and cannot do with or within our digital devices, platforms, and services. Meanwhile, our politics, our relationship with government, and our knowledge of the world more generally, is increasingly dependent on the companies that run the digital platforms, services, and devices that we use every day.

In the book I argue that we cannot assume that the Internet will evolve automatically in a direction that is going to be compatible with democracy. It depends on *how* the technology is structured, governed, and used. Governments and corporations are working actively to shape the Internet to fit their own needs. The most insidious situations arise when both government and corporations combine their efforts to exercise power over the same people at the same time, in largely unconstrained and unaccountable ways. This is why I argue that if we the people do not wake up and fight for the protection of our own rights and interests on the Internet, we should not be surprised to wake up one day to find that they have been programmed, legislated, and sold away.

What has been the US government's role in protecting digital freedoms so far? What different interests and ideas is it trying to balance? How has it done, in your view?

The U.S. government's role has been extremely contradictory. On the one hand you have the State Department, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, championing the cause of Internet freedom around the world and helping to reinforce the notion that core principles of human rights must extend to the Internet. On the other hand we have seen government surveillance powers -- much of it through privately owned and operated digital networks -- expanding over the course of two different administrations led by two different parties. Then you have the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce negotiating trade agreements that seek tougher enforcement against intellectual property violation, but which civil-liberties and free-speech groups around the world believe employ solutions that will erode freedom of speech and privacy online. You have the U.S. government using extra-judicial means to pressure the private sector to cut off web-hosting, domain name, and most importantly financial services and thus the ability to raise money by Wikileaks -- an organization that a number of U.S. politicians and officials have called criminal -- but which has yet to be charged let alone convicted of any crime.

What do you make of Twitter's new policy, which some have described as brazen censorship and others have applauded for its transparency and narrowness?

I lean more towards the latter than the former, with the caveat that we need to see how they actually practice the policy. Right now we have yet to see it implemented. It is my understanding that Twitter has no intention of complying with censorship demands from countries like China or Syria. The policy is intended as a way of handling demands from democracies like the United Kingdom, Germany, or Brazil. If they block a tweet it will only be blocked in the country whose government made the demand and users will have a way to change their country settings so that they can still see it from anywhere. The government order demanding the block will be provided through a link to a non-profit website called Chilling Effects. If it works as they intend it to work, the policy will call attention to government efforts to censor the Internet which in democracies at least could potentially result in voters holding their politicians accountable for trying to censor the Internet. But we will have to see if it really works that way.

In my book, however, I give a number of examples of how even companies' best intentions can go awry, and how there are often unintended consequences that nobody foresaw. Twitter would be well advised to recognize that when companies get too self-righteous and confident that they have got it all figured out and that they know what's best for their users, that is precisely when some particularly nasty set of unintended consequences emerge and undo years of efforts to build trust and credibility. Twitter would benefit in the long run from a bit more humility and a less arrogance about their ability to do the right thing by their users. They are delusional if they think they are not going to make appalling mistakes -- or make commercial decisions that ultimately have consequences for users' rights in ways they failed to anticipate or take seriously.

So far, they say they have no need to join Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies as part of a new organization called the Global Network Initiative, through which companies commit to a core set of human rights principles and then agree to work with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics to anticipate problems and figure out how to mitigate the damage when decisions are made that threaten Internet users' rights around the world. None of these companies are getting everything right by a long shot -- but at least they admit they are not capable of getting it right on their own. Twitter's attitude seems to be that they are in a separate ethical league from everybody else. I wish them the best of luck with that approach.

Since you wrote your book, the Internet has seen its biggest day of collective action ever -- the protests against the SOPA/PIPA legislation. How does this shape your perception of the networked commons? Do you think this represents a maturation of online activism or a sort of anomalous, singular event?

The Democracy ReportThe SOPA/PIPA protests showed that when people get focused and organized they can really have an impact on Internet-related laws and policies. It was also an awakening for a lot of people who have never paid much attention to Internet-related legislation being considered or passed by Congress--or haven't thought much about how these bills and laws affect them personally. The question now is whether the people who got mobilized around SOPA and PIPA, called their senators and congresspeople, and agitated on the Internet, will become a political force by making clear that candidates' record on Internet issues will be an important factor in their voting decisions. That is not yet clear. So it was definitely a short-term victory but we will see whether it will be a long-term victory.

Internationally, people have begun to protest against a trade agreement called ACTA (the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Act), which has a number of SOPA-like qualities, and in some cases have succeeded in preventing their governments from signing it. Around the democratic world there is a range of other legislation on the table -- dealing not only with copyright enforcement but also child protection, cybersecurity and surveillance -- on which the tech industry has different opinions and about which the general public knows little. Yet these types of laws can have a huge impact on the government's ability to access our personal communications through corporate networks.

The SOPA/PIPA protests were unusual, however in that we saw such a convergence of interests among the Internet industry, human rights groups, non-profit Internet communities like Wikipedia, and people across the political spectrum from the tea party to far-left progressives to libertarians. You don't see Silicon Valley trying to rally the networked masses over other Internet-related bills in the same way that they did over SOPA and PIPA. In part that's because the industry itself is more divided on issues like surveillance, child protection, broadband policy, or net neutrality, and these are also more partisan issues. If we want to hold our elected representatives accountable on things like surveillance -- and hold Silicon Valley accountable for protecting our privacy -- we are largely on our own. In the future "the networked" will sometimes form alliances with companies against government, but sometimes we are going to want and need to target our campaigns for change at the companies themselves.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In