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PdF '11 Recap: What the People of the Internet Can Demand

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, June 6 2011

danah boyd; photo credit: Esty Stein

We're at PdF '11, in New York City, which you can watch via livestream here. But what follows are some quickly sketched notes on this morning's opening session with Susan Morgan, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and danah boyd. The topic was a foundational one: what are the rights and responsibilities shared by the people of the Internet and the companies that help power the Internet, and how are those rights and responsibilities being contested, enforced, shaped everyday online?

Susan Morgan, the executive director of the Global Network Initiative, kicked things off by testifying that when it comes to the molding of the Internet by governments, "this year we're seeing something different." Sure, there are the startling Internet shutdown and constrictions in the Middle East and northern Africa, but not everything is so black and white, said Morgan -- we're seeing the subtle steering of conversations in chat rooms, for example. Not surprisingly, then, "the answers that emerge are going to be complex, nuanced, and specific" to geographies and local circumstances.

All the same, a consistent thread the world over is that companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are finding themselves often the arbiters of speech on the Internet. And so, the GNI encourages tech companies to adopt certain principles about how they'll behave. At this point in the evolution of the Internet, said Morgan, companies need to step up and do three things. First, accept that "the business decisions that companies make matter to millions of people around the world" -- and study exactly how they matter, by carrying out human rights assessments of their work. Second, reach out to outside expertise; "it's quite likely that companies won't have the expertise they'll need in house," said Morgan. And third, do a better job communicating the decisions they're making to their users.

So far, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have gotten on board with the Global Network Initiative. Facebook and Twitter, though, have declined to, and declined to say why.

But, said Siva Vaidhyanathan -- a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the book, "The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)," -- when it comes to questionable corporate online behavior like Amazon's booting of Wikileaks from its cloud servers back in November, "what did you expect?" Amazon is more or less a department store, said Vaidhyanathan, Back during the Wikileaks episode, Christmas was coming, and conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly was going on and on about the menace of Wikileaks. We need to remember, said Vaidhyanathan, that online agitators are functionally attempting to conduct a "rally in a shopping mall or debate in a Starbucks."

So what are users to do, then? When Facebook doesn't act "in the Internet way," suggested Vaidhyanathan, users can chose Diaspora, a work-in-progress designed to be a more open and distributed alternative. And then can back Global Voices, MobileActive, Tor, Avaaz. More than that, though, Vaidhyanathan called on the people of the Internet to fight the big policy fights. "We have to fight for net neutrality," said Vaidhyanathan. "We have to fight for free and open publishing." He went on. "We need to make sure free and open source software can thrive" and "we have to fight for specific policies that ensure freedom on the Internet."

danah boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, zeroed in on the personal, almost intimate, online choices that people can -- and do -- make everyday. boyd, who researchers the Internet practices of young people, reported that, unlike the offline world, online the presumption about privacy is "public by default, private by effort." boyd sketched creative ways that teenagers make the effort, displaying clever techniques that exhibit a savviness about a sort of "networked privacy" where our online exposure is the sum total of not only what we do, but what those who we're connected to do.

One geeky Washington DC teen structures his Facebook profiles so that his interests in "The Legend of Zelda" or Pokemon are sheltered from his less nerdy sister and cousins. Another teen "white walls" -- deleting Facebook and other digital comments a day or so after she posts then. And then boyd pointed to a teenager going through a breakup that used her friends' shared interest in Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" as a sort of communicative key. The girl posted lyrics from "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," the song that plays just before Brian is to be killed. The teen's mom read the wall post literally, interpreting it to mean that her daughter was doing well.

On the other hand, "her friends call[ed] her" in response, said boyd -- one small victory in the ongoing battle of Internet users to get what they want out of their time online.