‘Netizens’ Are Real Internet Sovereigns

Published May 31, 2016

Review of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon, Basic Books, 286 pages, 2012, $26.99.

Kids grow quickly, and the advertising slogan about wishing they could remain diminutive until the dozens of cute outfits purchased for them wears out rings equally true for making laws to regulate the Internet. No sooner is a law introduced than it becomes either obsolete or a serious barrier to innovation and investment.

Fortunately, Rebecca MacKinnon recognizes this in Consent of the Networked, a book that details the quickly evolving world of the Internet and the attempts of government agencies worldwide to squeeze it into cleverly adorable romper suits masquerading as sound public policy. Additionally, MacKinnon identifies homegrown U.S. companies as complicit with repressive foreign regimes who monitor search engines, shut down social-networking sites, or deploy a “kill switch” to shut down Internet access entirely.

MacKinnon’s firsthand accounts of Internet oppression in China, where she served as a CNN correspondent, provide Consent of the Networked with an urgent verisimilitude. Now a fellow at the New America Foundation, she capably writes of the Internet blackouts of the Arab Spring, noting how former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s henchmen forced Vodaphone—the UK company that ran Egypt’s online community as a public-private partnership—to shut down the country’s Internet to quell organized dissent.

‘It Can’t Happen Here’
MacKinnon’s retelling of the Chinese, Russian, and Arab Spring abuses of government control of the Internet are vaguely reminiscent of the Mothers of Invention song “Freak Out,” in which listeners slowly realize the inherent lie behind the phrase “It can’t happen here.” Such measures are increasingly possible in Kansas—name-checked in the song—and other points of Western civilization.

The fact that any government could force a company to throw an Internet “kill switch” is appalling, of course, but MacKinnon fails to explore that governments can only do so if a political power has inserted its tentacles into what should remain a private enterprise. She does succeed, however, in identifying repeated attempts by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to create a U.S. version of the kill switch as dangerous, as well as his demand that Amazon.com remove online information from WikiLeaks.

She also recounts privacy abuses of Google, Cisco, Facebook, and others in the United States and elsewhere as examples of companies acting as Internet servants for government overlords. The sheer size and ubiquity of Internet powerhouses such as FaceBook and Google have catapulted these businesses into their own version of sovereignty, says MacKinnon. Again referencing the WikiLeaks brouhaha, MacKinnon discusses how PayPal and MasterCard voluntarily stopped transferring payments to Julian Assange’s group, which “highlights a troubling murkiness, opacity, and lack of public accountability in the power relationships between government and Internet-related companies,” she writes.

Government Internet Intrusion
While sufficiently discussing the dangers of too much power wielded against the Internet by governments and how Internet companies are often eager to acquiesce to their sovereigns, too much of Consent of the Networked is dedicated to MacKinnon’s championing of network neutrality—despite acknowledging its detrimental impact on future investment and its seeming contradiction of her argument calling for less rather than more government intrusion into the Internet.

MacKinnon assumes the majority of Internet users—netizens, in her parlance—are passive to the whims of their government Internet sovereigns. The ready convenience of the Internet may lull the average user into a false sense of complacency, she warns, and privacy and free-speech concerns may be put aside inadvertently by netizens for a quick Web bump.

Methinks the lady protests too much. My fellow think tankers and several dedicated legislators such as Reps. Greg Walden (R-OR) and Fred Upton (R-MI) have endeavored for years to ensure the Internet stays open and free. Activism is alive and thriving, thank you very much.

Netizens, Unite!
MacKinnon lists even more encouraging technological developments, which make a de facto guerilla Internet network possible for freedom fighters denied access in their respective countries. In the United States, activists can employ social-networking sites such as CrabGrass, Diaspora, StatusNet, and FreedomBox that guarantee the anonymity not granted on Twitter and Facebook. MacKinnon also references Torbutton, which allows users to surf the Web anonymously and access blocked Web sites.

MacKinnon’s conclusion relies strongly on the work of philosopher Karl Popper, whom she quotes as advocating the genuine progress of humanity, which he wrote could be preserved only “by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice.”

The Internet, as MacKinnon infers, is one such democratic institution. Defending it is as imperative as a parent protecting a growing child, but the Web isn’t nearly as fragile as she depicts it. Innovators always will find ways to circumvent the mischief perpetrated by governments and corporations. Government-enforced net neutrality is not the answer; it only increases government power.

The real Internet sovereigns are the netizens, who are ever-vigilant to employ the Web as they continue to see fit.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.