If Netizens United: Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked

 A review of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (Basic Books, 2012), by Rebecca MacKinnon

Chinese journalist Shi Tao was jailed in 2005 after Yahoo provided Chinese state security agents with emails he had sent on a Yahoo China account. The emails had alerted a New York web editor of a recent Chinese government document instructing national media in what not to report on the latest Tiananmen Square anniversary. In 2010 Facebook deleted a page created on its site by Egyptian protestors, who used the page to organize anonymously. The page was titled “We Are All Khaled Said” after the man who was brutally killed by police in Alexandria, allegedly because Said was planning to post incriminating video of the Alexandrian police online. In the same year, Facebook deleted a page called “Boycott BP” following the infamous oil spill.

Facebook claimed to have deleted these pages because their creators used Facebook under aliases, violating the site’s terms of use. As Rebecca MacKinnon suggests in her book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, Facebook’s application of its own terms of use is arbitrary at best, corrupt at worst. Apparently no one is tipping off Facebook to its hundreds of users registered as “Donald Ducky.”

While the title of Consent of the Networked states the author’s political goal, MacKinnon devotes most of the book’s pages to describing her obstacles. “Consent of the networked” is the Internet equivalent of consent of the governed, a basic principle of democratic government in the modern world. When private companies operating in the digital commons (the online equivalent of the public square) do the bidding of governments that have not informed, let alone consulted, their citizens, that principle is violated. MacKinnon holds all three parties to account, because in her dystopian vision of the future, as in Huxley’s Brave New World, “we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation,” unable to resist the thrills of online shopping, gaming, and social media.

The difficult part, which MacKinnon does not tackle in detail, is determining how corporations, nation-states, globalgovernance bodies, and private citizens ought to act in order to prevent the disquieting events MacKinnon recounts from recurring or escalating. Instead MacKinnon tells “netizens”—worldwide citizens of the Internet—to mistrust government. She pronounces the failure of UN-led congregations of governments, companies, and NGOs from around the world to develop Internet policy. She writes,

It is clear that it is not in the interest of the world’s netizens to leave Internet governance to nation-states. Yet the structures and processes that have so far been built for multi-stakeholder Internet governance are failing to mediate the kind of global politics needed to uphold and protect human rights, civil liberties, and free expression in the global network.

MacKinnon has slightly more faith in companies’ abilities to develop sound policy on their own, as she argues that tech companies will recognize their long-term strategic interest in “keeping the Internet open and free.” MacKinnon predicates this argument on an elevation of certain tech companies to the status of nation-states, calling these companies “digital sovereigns.” Facebook is “Facebookistan”; Google is “Googledom.” With this rhetorical move MacKinnon imparts the responsibilities of states, from protecting freedom of speech to protecting privacy rights, on companies that in her view wield state-like power and authority. Both companies are giants, but their sovereignty—their supreme power over defined territory, in MacKinnon’s use of the word—applies only to their websites and platforms. Google hovers over our digital lives, gathering market research from web users logged in to their Google accounts, but it does not “govern our digital lives,” as MacKinnon asserts. These companies govern digital spaces that we willingly enter and exit when we log in and out. Yet MacKinnon puts the onus on private companies to live up to the responsibilities of governments. She has more confidence in the “trust but verify” approach to corporate Internet policy than she does in any governmental Internet policy.

As MacKinnon’s subtitle—“The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom” —indicates, MacKinnon uses the same nebulous language of Internet freedom that she exposes as fodder for political manipulation. “Internet freedom” can mean a number of things—freedom of networks from governmental or corporate manipulation, freedom of individuals to connect and interact online, freedom of individuals and organizations to participate in shaping Internet structure and governance. As in the offline world, uses of the word “freedom” are often vague and, likely thanks to that vagueness, politically rousing. In 2010 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced “Internet freedom” as a priority of American foreign policy, stating that “[both] the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.” In the speech Secretary Clinton did not discuss abuses of power in the private sector, nor did she discuss in any detail a US role in preventing abuses by authoritarian governments.

MacKinnon also tells us that just over a year before revolution took Egypt, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak gave an unscheduled speech on online child safety at the UN-formed multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum. Before her husband’s regime fell, Mrs. Mubarak promoted the Cyber Peace Initiative to protect another kind of Internet freedom—freedom from child predators. MacKinnon, who was in attendance, writes that Mrs. Mubarak’s speech not only disrupted “an entire morning” of programmed conferencing but showed that “child safety is commonly used by authoritarian regimes as an excuse for censorship and surveillance” (an aphorism reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the child safety bill introduced by Canada’s Conservative government this year). MacKinnon has a term for this political tactic, “digital bonapartism” – a play on Karl Marx’s term for power-hungry demagogues’ wearing of populist masks.

MacKinnon’s invocations of Internet freedom, just like those of the politicians she mentions, aim to rally her troops. Her book is peppered with assertions that “[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.” Her populist message is powerful but undermined by her antagonism toward Internet commercialism. We should think of our online selves as “netizens” rather than users or consumers, MacKinnon tells us. But sometimes we are just consumers, and sometimes private companies justifiably disregard ideals of Internet openness and freedom when choosing what to buy and sell online. In her chapter on corporate censorship, MacKinnon blames “Big Brother Apple” for selectively populating its online App Store, occasionally rejecting apps devoted to political satire. MacKinnon neglects to mention that those dissatisfied with Apple’s media selection can find or create content of their choice on a web browser, all while using an Apple device (assuming they don’t live in China). Or they can go to one of Apple’s rivals: Google’s Android Market is keeping pace with the App Store, as Android’s operating system market share continues to beat that of Apple’s iOS.

In matters of corporate censorship, MacKinnon has bigger fish to fry. Internet censorship software designed by Canadian and US companies to protect children and employers is used by repressive governments in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia. Corporate lobbying has helped make intellectual property enforcement a cornerstone of recent Internet legislation in Canada and the US, encouraging governments that view IP law enforcement as legitimate censorship and surveillance. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry stated last year that “the Chinese government’s legal management of the Internet is in line with international practice.” Without a great deal of public pressure, that practice is unlikely to change.

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