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Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's Take Back The Internet!

First Posted: 12/ 7/2011 10:44 am Updated: 03/ 5/2012 11:43 pm

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Watch researcher, advocate, and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom Rebecca MacKinnon's TEDTalk above and then explore her thoughts in this companion essay.


In the past five months since I called on the world's Internet users to "take back the Net" at TedGlobal in Edinburgh, the issues I highlighted have grown more obvious and urgent.

In October, the world mourned the death of Steve Jobs. Netizens in China, Cuba, and Iran made comments to the effect that they respected Jobs more than they respected their own leaders. This speaks to a phenomenon I highlighted in my talk: that global information technology companies have become what I call the new "sovereigns of cyberspace." New kinds of global constituencies are forming around certain brands of hardware, software, and virtual platforms created by multinational companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter. Members of these global constituencies can hold strong and even emotionally-charged loyalties towards technologies that they have integrated into their lives and even identities. These overlapping loyalties and constituencies will increasingly compete and clash with loyalties and identities tied to the physical nation-state.

No government -- not even Western ones claiming to champion Internet freedom -- is equipped to deal with the long-term consequences of this trend. But that doesn't mean that we should leave it to the world's multi-national technology companies to program and engineer the Internet in ways that best suit their commercial interests, or refashion global geopolitics to their own liking, just because so many governments are not getting it right. We the world's netizens must work to make sure that the Internet, the geopolitical system, and the international economy evolve in a way that serves everybody's rights and interests, not just those of the most powerful one percent.

The trends over the past five months have not been good. The sale and use of Western surveillance technology is rampant around the Middle East and North Africa and is aiding repressive governments. The social networking and mobile tools that helped fuel the Arab Spring have not enabled activists to stop a new round of state violence and repression in Egypt. Chinese Internet companies are bowing to government demands to ramp up censorship and surveillance of users. In Russia, digital repression is on the rise in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections.

In the democratic West, many technical and regulatory trends are moving in the wrong direction. Take for instance the proposed legislation now before the U.S. Congress that would effectively erect a "Great Firewall of America" in the name of protecting intellectual property. Bills now under consideration by the Canadian parliament would enable more aggressive online spying in the name of fighting crime and terror. The recent experiences with arrest and confiscation of property by members of the Occupy Movement have brought home to a new generation of activists just how vulnerable citizens who believe they are merely exercising their first amendment rights can be to abuses of government power via digital networks and devices.

As I pointed out in Edinburgh in July, and as I argue in my forthcoming book, Consent of the Networked, we must not let our excitement about new technologies blind us to the reality that all governments, powerful corporations seeking market dominance, and all kinds of other groups with resources and technical prowess can be expected to use digital networks to obtain and maintain power whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In the democratic West, the road to hell is often paved with a combination of good intentions and the pursuit of profits. The potential for the abuse of power via digital networks -- upon which we citizens now depend for nearly everything including our politics -- is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. If citizens and leaders of democracies cannot commit to guard against and prevent such abuses, the prospects for aspiring and fragile democracies in Tunisia and Egypt, let alone hopes for the future in places like Iran and China, look much less bright in the long run.

It is at the emergent digital intersection between corporate and political power where the most subtle and insidious threat to democracy lies. Fighting this threat requires a much broader and deeper global Internet freedom movement. If it had not been for decades of activism, governments would never have done the right thing on environmental and labor policy. Without global human rights, labor, and environmental movements, companies would still be hiring ten-year-olds as a matter of course and poisoning our groundwater without batting an eyelid. Similarly, we cannot assume that the Internet will evolve in the citizen's favor without strong and sustained activism by people who view themselves not as passive "users" but as citizens of the Internet.

Netizens of the world, unite! The time has come to occupy the Net. Existing political and legal frameworks have so far proven incapable of preventing and constraining the abuse of digital power. Democratic societies have yet to conceive, let alone enact, the political innovations needed to ensure that government and technology really do serve the world's people -- and not the other way around. We have no time to lose.

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Filed by Beth Davidz  |