Consent of the Networked

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* Book: Consent of the Networked. The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. Rebecca MacKinnon


'A global struggle for control of the Internet is now underway. At stake are no less than civil liberties, privacy and even the character of democracy in the 21st century.

Many commentators have debated whether the Internet is ultimately a force for freedom of expression and political liberation, or for alienation, and repression. Rebecca MacKinnon moves the debate about the Internet’s political impact to a new level. It is time, she says, to stop arguing over whether the Internet empowers individuals and societies, and address the more fundamental and urgent question of how technology should be structured and governed to support the rights and liberties of all the world’s Internet users.

Drawing upon two decades of experience as an international journalist, co-founder of the citizen media network Global Voices, Chinese Internet censorship expert, and Internet freedom activist, MacKinnon offers a framework for concerned citizens to understand the complex and often hidden power dynamics amongst governments, corporations, and citizens in cyberspace. She warns that a convergence of unchecked government actions and unaccountable company practices threatens the future of democracy and human rights around the world.

Consent of the Networked is a call to action: Our freedom in the Internet age depends on whether we defend our rights on digital platforms and networks in the same way that people fight for their rights and accountable governance in physical communities and nations. It is time to stop thinking of ourselves as passive “users” of technology and instead act like citizens of the Internet – as netizens – and take ownership and responsibility for our digital future." (


1. John Kampfner:

"In her grand sweep of "the worldwide struggle for internet freedom", Rebecca MacKinnon alights on the many dilemmas facing policy makers and corporate chiefs, and the many threats that cyberspace poses for individual liberty. At the heart of her critique is less the steps taken by western governments to impose rules than the lack of transparency and accountability for them. She lists the tactics of repressive regimes – from pre-emptive denials of service of websites to closing down of internet access. Cleverer authoritarians have taken to the internet and to social media with gusto, churning out propaganda or employing fifth columnists to do their work for them.

The most dangerous development has been the use of online tools for surveillance. She lists activists from Russia to China, from Iran to Syria, who have been rounded up for their tweets or Facebook messages in an era she dubs "digital Bonapartism". She writes: "Deep packet inspection technologies make it easy to automate surveillance through the internet service providers – provided by US and other western firms." And she details which firms have provided what.

Much of this is known, although it is important to restate the dangers. Most telling are MacKinnon's chapters on the behaviour of supposedly democratic governments. Among the first countries to use filtering systems on a national level were the squeaky-clean Finns, Danes and Swedes. Almost invariably the motivations are good, such as child protection. In 2009 the German parliament passed such a law. Yet the list of websites to be blocked was maintained by the police without public oversight.

Copyright and intellectual property provides a legislative and philosophical minefield, exploited by governments to stifle dissent. As shown by the recent battle in the US over the Sopa and Pipa legislation aimed at protecting copyright on the internet, governments the world over often overreact to the challenges of open access to information. MacKinnon reminds readers that, for all its rhetorical flourishes to the contrary, the Obama administration has continued the woeful record of George W Bush. Governments are taking a Hobbesian approach, ever fearful of chaos. Theirs is a "false binary choice between their preferred solutions and an anarchic state of nature in cyberspace… without allowing for any alternatives."

As for corporations, they tend to flounder in the face of government threats. The solution, she says, is transparency. If companies were more open about the information they give authorities, including in uncontroversial areas such as anti-terrorism and child pornography, they would earn more trust. "Many old-fashioned brick-and-mortar companies in the food, beverage and fashion industries, even a number of oil, gas and mining companies, are much further along than the world's most cutting edge internet-related companies when it comes to accountability," she adds.

Thoroughly researched by one of the experts in the field, the book straddles the line between an academic and general audience. MacKinnon entreats internet users to see themselves as active citizens – not consumers or eyeballs. She harks back to Huxley's Brave New World: "Our desire for security, entertainment and material comfort is manipulated to the point that we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation." She ends with a rallying cry: "We have a responsibility to hold the abusers of digital power to account, along with their facilitators and collaborators. If we do not, when we wake up one morning to discover that our freedoms have eroded beyond recognition, we will have only ourselves to blame." (

2. Pierce Stanley:

"A great part of Consent of the Networked is concerned with disruptions to the free flow of information on the Internet by specific governments, and MacKinnon succeeds at isolating what she defines as critical moments of abuse in China and the Middle East. While heavy on individual narratives of jailed dissidents and tales of governments hacking activists’ social media accounts, MacKinnon’s book ultimately underscores a reality that citizens seeking accountable government anywhere in the world need to understand. As she observes, “Though the technology used for coordinating and organizing may be politically neutral, the context in which it is deployed is rarely so. Governments everywhere—whether they do business in the home government of companies or in the host government of markets—are demanding that Internet and telecommunications companies take sides, or at least stand back and avert their eyes while the government does what it needs to do, leaving the user or customer none the wiser.”

A discussion of Internet censorship is not complete without an explanation of the sizable role that individual companies’ policies have in policing content on digital networks, and MacKinnon rightfully takes up the role of corporate censorship. She brilliantly dissects specific companies’ policies, explores their recent high profile legal battles (she offers a particularly compelling account of Yahoo’s legal blunders in China), and reveals the extent of their complicity with governments that censor the Internet. And it is here that MacKinnon’s intended definition of “consent of the networked” actually reveals itself. “The Internet is a human creation...” she writes, “power struggles are an inevitable feature of human society. Democracy is about constraining power and holding it accountable. The Internet can be a powerful tool in the hands of citizens seeking to hold governments and corporations to account—but only if we keep the Internet itself open and free.”

For MacKinnon, “consent of the networked” is the negotiated relationship between people with power and people whose interests and rights are affected by that power. Unfortunately, she ends up muddying the legal and philosophical waters. While she argues for a level of political innovation that matches the rapid technological innovations of the Internet itself, MacKinnon suggests that we need to think about our interactions with private digital intermediaries in the same way that political philosophers have traditionally thought about relationships between citizens and the state. MacKinnon posits the rise of the “digital commons,” an Internet—driven by the private sector—that has challenged the power and legitimacy of the nation-state and created a new community of innovation and disruptive digital activism. In the most idealistic vein, MacKinnon sees Consent of the Networked as Locke 2.0, an update of the social contract for life in the current Internet environment.

But private companies are not “sovereigns,” nor should we classify them as such. MacKinnon’s premise attempts to offer companies as a legitimate source of coercive power, but her exposition breaks down when she fails to explain how corporations obtain sovereign authority. The same facts do not hold true for corporate entities that hold true for governments, and herein resides the weakness in MacKinnon’s narrative. Her book may offer useful labels, such as “Facebookistan” and “Googledom,” to aid in conceptualizing the vast influence of corporate entities on daily cyber-life; but MacKinnon’s claims about sovereignty ignore basic tenets of political philosophy, and one must take a sizable leap to believe that there is any legitimacy in MacKinnon’s claims of corporations’ actual “rule” over us. Apple may play a key role in the unfurling of American consumer culture, but it hardly has enough real power to be deemed a sovereign.

In terms of real world legal solutions, it is not always clear what MacKinnon is recommending. She never really clarifies, for example, how to strike the right balance between regulation, cooperation, and compromise with the phenomenal rise of “digital sovereigns.” Indeed, MacKinnon imagines that a book such as hers will be able actually to dictate when the law gets used to do “the right thing,” but such a regulatory approach is naively dangerous for two reasons. First, it assumes that Internet scholars such as MacKinnon know exactly what the right thing to do is, and second, it will strike outsiders as a “have your cake and eat it too” moment. MacKinnon wants “Netizens” to have the opportunity to decry regulation at any turn, and at the same time decide what policies and laws are actually acceptable for a free and fair Internet. Imagine if the same activists who called for a Twitter blackout in January were able to craft Twitter’s policies going forward. Such a move portends an Internet far more confusing and inevitably darker than the one we already have.

In the most successful portions of her book, MacKinnon does a fine job of documenting and criticizing the many ways that governments already enlist digital intermediaries into a variety of regulatory efforts, including copyright enforcement, online child safety, and national security. MacKinnon seeks to “expand the technical commons” by building and distributing tools to help activists and make organizations more transparent and accountable. She vocally defends projects such as the State Department-funded non-profit Tor Project, a site that preserves anonymity online and is used by democracy activists, particularly in repressive countries, to share information. And she offers a clear guide to what interested parties realistically should do to expand the landscape of Internet freedom by offering a clear set of principles to regulate life in cyberspace.

MacKinnon certainly appreciates the unintended consequences of regulation, and she succeeds at illustrating key examples of when regulation lags far behind innovation. But MacKinnon’s manifesto for “Netizens” is hardly more than the rhetorical puff of her much-celebrated TED talk. In a companion essay to that talk, MacKinnon writes, “the road to hell is often paved with a combination of good intentions and the pursuit of profits. The potential for 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.” But Consent of the Networked, while a clarion call to action, falls short of providing real solutions.

While MacKinnon’s effort is a valuable contribution to a complicated field of study that promises to be with us for as long as governments and corporations struggle to “govern” the digital environment, the reader still needs clearer guidelines for how to solve some of these problems going forward. “Tweetavists” and lay-people alike, take note." (