When 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.
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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.