Rebecca MacKinnon discusses new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, visited Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday to talk about her new book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. In it, she delves into how our technologies and cyberspace should be governed to support the liberties of Internet users around the world. The talk was moderated by Columbia professor Emily Bell, and MacKinnon opened the discussion by referring to last winter’s Arab Spring, which sparked much “euphoric” media coverage about the role of the internet as a “democracy fostering force.”

But how should technology be structured to help support human rights around the world? Yes, technology can be a great way to organize, communicate, and protest, but it can also infringe on people’s privacy, and in effect, freedom. “Increasingly, a citizen’s relationship with the government is mediated through our communication technologies,” says MacKinnon. “How do you insure the technology is governed and configured in a way that serves the citizens rather than serving corporate profits and government interests?”

She refers to the “sovereigns of cyberspace,” like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, and the power of their creations. “Increasingly, civic lives depend on these platforms,” says MacKinnon, yet the decision making at these companies doesn’t always take into consideration how these choices could effect their most “vulnerable users.” “It’s not their primary concern,” says MacKinnon.

She points to the situation that came out of a Facebook page dedicated to Khaled Saeed, a young Egyptian who was murdered at the hands of Egyptian police. His death is considered to be one of the galvanizing forces behind the protests, but the Facebook page, “We are Khaled Saeed,” was taken down because the people who put it up, fearing repercussions, did so under fake names, which violates Facebook’s terms of service. It was eventually reinstated when someone volunteered to put it under their real name in the US. And while it’s these protesters decisions to rely on a social network, still, “Facebook’s management decisions have an impact on activists that’s not always positive,” says MacKinnon.

Overall, MacKinnon says there’s an online accountability problem. When so much rests on these net behemoths, it’s hard to figure out who’s responsible for making the public interest a priority. While the actions of Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have had positive effects, “it’s dangerous to say technology is pointing in a freer direction, and ultimately it will all be okay,” says MacKinnon, who is not a fan of “technology determinism.” “There’s a difference between freedom of bits and freedom of human beings,” says MacKinnon, “and it’s not always an equal sign.”

That’s why MacKinnon feels that Internet users need to try and influence the companies whose platforms they depend on. Just as society came to question the “divine right of kings” and pushed for a “consent of the governed,” similarly, we need a consent of the networked, which she says is at its “Magna Carta stage.”

What used to be an information “desert” has become a “rainforest,” says MacKinnon, with a very precarious ecosystem. “The old laws and economy of scarcity don’t apply.” When a problem like copyright infringement arises, there’s no easy legislative bandage. Laws and other proposed counter measures don’t take into account “the ecosystem that this problem exists in and what other rights could be infringed by the fix.”

MacKinnon had a very interesting point about how these topics get covered. “A lot of these internet law and policy stories that have a big impact in the long run on our freedoms and politics and how we relate to the world—they don’t fit neatly into various beats,” says MacKinnon. Stories about technology or the politics of its regulation end up in various sections, “either it’s a business story, or it’s a gadget story, or it’s a tech story, and the editors are like ‘have the geeks cover it.” MacKinnon suggested it might be more appropriate to send the geo-political reporter on these stories, and Emily Bell agreed, responding, “a converging world doesn’t fit into beats.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.