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Book Review: Consent of the Networked

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, February 3 2012

Book cover for Rebecca MacKinnon's "Consent of the Networked"

Last night, a crowd of more than one hundred gathered on the sixth floor of MIT's Media Lab to help Rebecca MacKinnon launch her new book, The Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. The audience included net luminaries like Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, and Andrew Newman, the director of the Tor Project, and the discussion was at the same level.

Count me among those who are thoroughly convinced by MacKinnon's reporting and arguments. The heart of her book can be summed up by these two quotes:

It is time to stop debating whether the Internet is an effective tool for political expression, and to move on to the much more urgent question of how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good it can do in the world, and minimize the evil….

The reality is that the corporations and governments that build, operate, and govern cyberspace are not being held sufficiently accountable for their exercise of power over the lives and identities of people who use digital networks. They are sovereigns operating without the consent of the networked.

In many ways, MacKinnon's book is the one Evgeny Morozov should have written, if he was more interested in building a sensible movement for Internet freedom rather than conducting scorched-earth warfare against people who believe the Internet can help strengthen democratic culture. MacKinnon both illustrates the power of the new digital commons in enabling revolutionary movements in places like Tunisia and Egypt as well as the evolution of "networked authoritarianism" in countries like China. The problem of corporate collaboration with repressive regimes is highlighted throughout the book, and MacKinnon introduces a useful new concept &mdash "digital bonapartism" — to explain how populist demagogues like Russia's Vladimir Putin have managed to allow a degree of online freedom without real democracy. She writes:

In Russia, the Internet enables the government to embrace a more populist style—engaging people with a more personal relationship with the government—without actually committing to protect the rights of unpopular dissenters, minorities, and people the regime believes threaten its stability. In 2006 when then-president Putin conducted his first-ever live webcast with Russia’s netizens on Yandex, he famously responded to questions about when he had lost his virginity and whether he had ever tried marijuana, in addition to addressing questions about military conscription, immigration controls, and other civic issues. Such interactions are now an accepted component of Russian politics. Current president Medvedev has moved beyond Putin in his embrace of social media, setting up a Twitter account and conducting online chats, as he cultivates a more liberal image in contrast to that of his predecessor.

This, she warns, is a new model "that can be replicated elsewhere": where in effect interactive media becomes a new kind of bread and circus and "a full-ranging public discourse about the nation's political future is thus constrained and stunted." To her credit, MacKinnon then turns this same critical lens on her home country, the United States, and lambastes current government initiatives to expand online censorship and surveillance. "We have a problem," she writes, "the political discourse in the United States and in many other democracies now depends increasingly on privately owned and operated digital intermediaries. Whether unpopular, controversial, and contested speech has the right to exist on these platforms is left up to unelected corporate executives, who are under no legal obligation to justify their decisions."

This brings MacKinnon to her book's central concern: the idea that, more and more, we live under a new breed of digital sovereigns — the Mark Zuckerbergs, Jeff Bezoses and Larry Pages — and thus is time to start to argue for our rights as citizens of cyberspace, not users or consumers or eyeballs being delivered to advertisers. Thus, for example, the recent pushback on Google after it insisted that users of Google Plus use their real names, which some called the "Nym wars," was, for MacKinnon, a hopeful example of netizens engaging with a kind of "collective bargaining," she noted during her talk at MIT. "We're at the Magna Carta moment" for this movement, she noted, insisting that revolution and constitution-drafting remained far off.

In case you think MacKinnon's world-view is gloomy, it isn't. Like many of us she is inspired by the explosion of human creativity and collaboration taking place in the networked age. "When you get a group of tech-savvy activists together, you can mount a pretty serious challenge to state sovereignty," she noted last night. And like most in attendance, she hailed the recent SOPA battle as a hopeful sign of a rising tide of newly activated people. But, she also warned, netizens shouldn't take for granted that Internet companies will always be their allies. For example, she said, "Google didn't mobilize netizens over net neutrality, it just cut its own backroom deal [with Verizon and the FCC]."

While Consent of the Networked offers netizens a workable roadmap to a real vision of internet freedom, the people who should most read this book aren't the already aware, but folks--especially policy-makers--who see all the shiny devices and trendy social media and foolishly assume that the Internet will ultimately prevail. It might, but only if we understand what a lucky and unusual accident the Internet really is, and that to keep it open and free, we have to fight for it.