Rebecca MacKinnon, cofounder of the citizen media network Global Voices and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, presented a public lecture at CEU on Monday, March 5.
MacKinnon, whose book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom was published this year, presented and illustrated the most salient issues raised in her book. She was introduced by Kate Coyer, Director of the Center for Media and Communication Studies at CEU, and a Q&A session afterward was moderated by Assistant Professor Youngmi Kim.
MacKinnon's main point was the pressing need for people to take responsibility for the future development of the Internet. Instead of “users,” she argued, we should in fact be citizens of the Internet - “netizens." Too many people, she warned, assume that the Internet is a fixed product, which does what it does and how it does it by nature. But the Internet as we know it today is the result of decades of deliberate decisions by entrepreneurs, engineers, regulators and others, and its future development will equally depend on decisions by key actors.
In this context, MacKinnon warned against the often unspoken assumption that technological innovation is inherently liberating and will automatically lead to increased political and cultural liberalization. In reality, the tools of online technology can be used in highly divergent ways. Speaking about the Tunisian revolution, for example, she noted how the new chief of the Tunisian Internet Agency, Moez Chackchouk, revealed that under Ben Ali's rule Tunisia had long been used as testing ground for censorware developed by Western companies. Similarly, Egyptian activists who stormed state security headquarters discovered transcripts of their emails, text messages, and data logs revealing where they had used their cell phones or accessed the Internet and contracts from Western companies that had marketed deep packet inspection technology to the Egyptian regime.
While MacKinnon, in this context, did reference the debate between Evgeny Morozov, who has gained fame by pointing out the shadow sides of new technologies, and more optimistic analysts such as Clay Shirky, she argued that the point of whether the Internet was a good or a bad thing is moot. It exists, and it fills an increasingly central place in mediating the interactions between citizens and governments and consumers and businesses. The urgent question now is therefore what can be done to ensure that it will develop in a way that is compatible with democracy, open society, and dissent. The Internet's future depends on what we, as citizens, users, consumers, and voters do to exercise our power.
This is not to imply that the global users of the Internet will want to exercise this power for the same ends. MacKinnon briefly sketched the debate around the SOPA and PIPA legislation in the U.S., which was shelved after sustained protests by grassroots Internet communities and companies such as Google, and the international ACTA treaty. Those attempts at regulating the Internet were intended to protect intellectual property, but are criticized for introducing new processes of surveillance and concepts of legal liability that have a chilling effect on free speech. The controversies that surround them illustrate how we, as societies, don't quite agree yet about how the Internet should develop. Concerns about child protection and hate speech are similarly leading to calls for a degree of surveillance and censorship which in turn are triggering warnings about symbolic measures and the potential of abuse.
Such discussions are not just raging in the West, MacKinnon stressed, again taking Tunisia as example. Just months after Ben Ali stepped down, the new government passed an order calling for the re-establishment of censorship, focused on obscene and hateful content deemed inappropriate for a conservative Islamic country. The country's Internet Agency challenged the order, and the High Court ruled against the order last month. China is perfecting a different approach altogether, and MacKinnon showed images of “self-discipline awards” which are given to the Internet companies that do the best job in policing their users and content (recipients include Baidu, the Chinese Google). Chinese censorship works as well as it does exactly because it encompasses more than just the notorious “Great Chinese Firewall,” MacKinnon explained; intermediaries such as social media sites play a crucial role by preemptively blocking or deleting controversial content and identifying offending users to the government, and do so because they are held accountable for everything their users post.
Governments and judiciaries, however, are not the only actors that can support or threaten the open character of the Internet. In fact, in a globalized digital realm, the frameworks of nation-states and their governments offer an ill fit for Internet governance. Making this point, MacKennon introduced the concept of “intersecting fields of sovereignty” of governmental authorities and international Internet companies. Both these actors implement measures which affect the lives of users across borders. Regulations passed by the U.S. Congress or the European Commission, based on the perceived interests of American or European citizens, affect the Internet experience of users around the world as global companies struggle to conform. Terms of Service formulated by the “sovereigns of cyberspace” such as Facebook and Apple in order to safeguard company profits or avoid political pressure can impose restrictions beyond what national legislation would require. MacKinnon mentioned the example of an app that was developed by a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist but long blocked by Apple: “There is content that is available on news shelves across the democratic West, but can't be put on an iPhone app.”
Considering the increasingly central role of the Internet as the medium of news and information, MacKinnon argued, Internet companies have a clear impact on the lives, freedoms, rights, and interests of citizens. She called the time we live in a new “Magna Carta moment." Just like the Magna Carta heralded a transition in which the legitimacy of power became rooted in the concept of the consent of the governed, rather than some divinely awarded right of kings to govern, the consent of the governed should be the guiding principle in the future development of the Internet. And just like at the time of the Magna Carta, we realize that the old systems of governance do not anymore suffice, but we are still far from figuring out what dynamics could take their place.
The role of a global digital citizenry, MacKinnon stressed, is paramount, and she pointed to a burgeoning digital civil society encompassing everything from Creative Commons and Wikipedia to Linux and open source blogging platforms, in which software engineering standards and Internet content are developed around civic needs rather than profit motives. The only reason governments and companies have come to adhere to at least some degree of environmental, labor and public interest standards, she reminded the audience, is because sustained global movements forced them to. We can help shape the future of the Internet in a way that protects free speech and transparency in a similar way, but it will require the same kind of effort. In the end, MacKinnon concluded, "we will get the Internet we deserve."