Creating Technology for Social Change

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Do we need a Magna Carta for the Internet? Who should create it, and what might it contain?

Rebecca McKinnon spoke at the Center for Civic Media today about her new book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (TED Talk). For many years, Rebecca was the face of CNN in Beijing and Tokyo. Then she co-founded Global Voices with our director Ethan Zuckerman. More recently, she has been thinking about what it means to be a netizen, and what might be our responsibilities and rights.


Rebecca started out by referring to Apple’s famous 1984 advert– in its Tunisian mashup form. The Tunisian version, made by Riadh Guerfali in 2004, shows Ben Ali in the place of Big Brother, and a girl Azizah who dreams of the end of his regime. Since then, there has been a great deal of debate about the role of the Internet in the Arab Spring, mostly around the extent to which Internet activists played a role in bringing down Ben Ali or Mubarak. Rebecca doesn’t want to ask if the good or bad guys are winning online. She has a much more interesting question:

How do we ensure that the Internet plays a healthy role in democracy? How will the Internet help the people of Tunisia and Egypt build a long term stable democracy?

It’s not clear who can make these decisions, since Internet companies often work across borders. For example, Western companies have developed censorware for Middle-Eastern countries. In Tunisia, the fall of the Ben Ali regime doesn’t necessarily mark the end of censorship. In May 2011, as the elections approached, censorship returned to the Tunisian Internet at the request of groups that didn’t want to see pornography and other offensive material online. The military tribunals requested that certain pages be blocked, and they remain blocked. So now, as Tunisia is establishing the principles of their new democracy, there is a big debate around whether censorship is appropriate under any circumstances, and if so, who should set those policies. This is concerning activists, who worry that if censorship is accepted, it may be difficult to develop an effective democracy.

No matter how this conversation goes, decisions about Tunisian censorship aren’t entirely up to the people of Tunisia. If the US government sets policies which change how Facebook or Google behave, the Tunisian people have no influence those policies. This is sometimes useful. Hillary Clinton at the State Department has been advocating for Internet freedom, but at the same time laws like SOPA threaten to impose liabilities on Internet companies which make Tunisian censorship easier.

Companies themselves have tremendous power. Rebecca showed us a world map of social networks. Facebook is dominant in the West, Orkut in Brazil, Odnoklassniki in Central Asia, V Kontakte in Russia, Mixti in Japan, and QZone in China. Rebeca calls these companies and the men who run them the “Sovereigns of Cyberspace.” Through the technologies they control, these men are making decisions about what their users can or cannot do. They are shaping our digital privacy and identity, as well as how we relate to each other and our government. Despite this power, these companies not accountable to the public interest in any way. Company’s policies often fail to account for the most vulnerable users, such as activists who choose not to use their real names.

One example of a company policy which endangers activists is the real name requirement. In the summer of 2012, Egyptian organizers started a “We Are All Khaled Said” facebook page to protest the torture and murder of Khalid Said by Egyptian police. The activists who created this page used psuedonyms to protect their identities, but the Facebook page was shut down. Activists were only able to get the page reinstated after an American woman offered to post it under her real name. Company policies like real name requirements may may commercial sense, but they can also put some people under risk of torture and death.

Rebecca shared another example, the Great Firewall of China. This is a policy in which Internet companies are expected to carry out “self discipline,” e.g. self censorship over the content that people post. In America, companies like Google and Facebook typically have people moderating porn and hate speech. But in China, political content is also routinely taken down. Rebecca points out that while the Internet has genuinely made people feel more free about exposing injustices at the local level, the government is able to control the Internet enough that people still go to jail for posting ideas (such as multi-party democracy) that the government finds unacceptable. In some cases, it’s not even possible to publish certain material at all– the Baidu website will refuse to accept content with objectionable political content. It’s not always clear what the reasons are for a takedown. In another example, the German bank Deutche Welle had their account deleted with no explanation from the the twitter-like Chinese site Weibo. No one knows what they did wrong, or who found their marketing content objectionable.

Rebecca thinks we need an Internet which empowers citizens rather than just companies and the government. She showed us a graph of citizens’ relationships with government, as mediated by companies. In the traditional sense of keeping companies accountable to the public interest, the elected government is expected to regulate companies and hold them accountable. The problem with that model is that companies have a lot of influence on elections and legislations; it’s not clear that government regulation is going to favor citizens or not. Likewise, companies are influencing citizens as they design their platforms.

Since companies aren’t limited to just one country, do consumers need to organise around the world to shape how the Internet works? Furthermore, since we can’t count on governments to keep companies accountable, Rebecca thinks we need to organise globally to hold companies accountable, acting towards companies as constituents.

Rebecca thinks we need a Magna Carta of the Internet. As she tells it, in medieval England, the Magna Carta challenged the notion of the divine right of kings. It wasn’t until much later that Locke and the American colonists developed the idea of the consent of the governed. Today, many of us assume that this is how governance is supposed to work, that governments should be accountable to the group of people who live in that geographical nation state. But on the Internet, national consent of the governed isn’t working. Rebecca thinks that we’re at a new Magna Carta moment, where we need to figure out what it means to have the Consent of the Networked.

What ideas should shape this new notion of governance?

According to Rosenthal Alvez, political systems before the Internet were based on a desert of information and ideas. The Internet has replaced society with a rainforest. We need a new set of strategies for dealing with abundance and overflow online in a way that accommodates the rights and interests of everyone.

Another critical right for a Magna Carta of the Internet is the idea of the Digital Commons. This is the idea that we need open standards based on a model of sharing which doesn’t require permission for people to create new things.

Who’s working on this? Rebecca points us to projects to establish Internet human rights, the Global Network Initiative, the Google Transparency Report, groups working towards government transparency on censorship and surveillance, and special interest activists who are developing means of collective bargaining between consumers and companies. She also pointed to the recent fight against SOPA and PIPA in the United States.

Rebecca ended her talk with a call to action. We’re still quite some way from figuring out how to build things, still living in a rainforest with a desert governance mindset. She urges us to take personal responsibility for the future of the Internet. The role of the Internet in society is not yet determined, and we need to be active participants to figure out and create new kinds of governance online.

== Q & A ==

Our first Q&A speaker was Micah Sifry, cofounder of the Personal Democracy Forum, who is currently teaching a course on politics and the Internet at the Kennedy School.

Micah asked, “was it really worse before?” In the past in the US you needed a lot of money or personal connections to achieve things in government. Might there be other threats to democracy? We assume that democracies function with the consent of the governed, but even in the United States, not even that has been secured. Rebecca responded by referring to Larry Lessig’s work on campaign finance in the US. She agrees that it’s a major problem that’s getting worse. However, Rebecca thinks it may well be possible for people on the Internet to organise online to stop things which formerly seemed inevitable.

Secondly, Micah wondered if it’s better to have companies run by founders, or if they should be a public company. Rebecca thinks that the political values of founders are luck of the draw. Publicly listed companies have their own problems, as they pursue short term quarterly profits rather than the long term value they could provide to shareholders and society. In areas ranging from labour to the environment, it’s not clear that publicly listed companies are more likely to make responsible decisions. Rebecca wonders if it’s going to be possible to motivate the public about privacy and censorship to the same degree as environmental issues. Nor do we have the means to keep Internet companies as accountable as companies in other sectors. In the long term, Rebecca thinks that socially sustainable business practices are good long-term strategies. Will founders or publicly listed companies see that?

Finally, Micah wanted to know what Rebecca thought about Wikileaks. It succeeded at publishing documents that the US government didn’t want to publish. Is that a demonstration of the power of the Internet? Rebecca agrees with Yochai Benkler that whatever you think of Wikileaks, the erosion of due process around speech and the unaccountable tactics taken by companies governments to silence that speech has been very troubling. Governments haven’t yet realised that Wikileaks needs to be defended as much as the New York Times.

Wikileaks shows us that capable developers and activists can mount a serious challenge to state sovereignty. Rebecca asked us to consider whether Wikileaks are like the American revolutionaries, or whether they’re more like Robin Hood. The State Department had to set up a whole unit to warn and relocate people who were put in danger by the leaked cables. At the same time, some activists in Tunisia credit Wikileaks with helping them to bring down Ben Ali. So it’s a mixed bag. Groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous stick it to the man, showing us that the system is broken, punishing some participants in the broken system, and working to tear them down. But it’s not clear what these group want to replace those systems. Especially in the case of Anonymous, Rebecca is concerned with the view that the ends justify the means. She is troubled by groups that call for world democracy while doing things that show they don’t care if someone gets screwed.

The next set of questions were asked by Andrew Lewman, Executive Director of the Tor Project. He reminded us that the Internet is really awesome, something that people really love. It connects us across cultures and opens our lives up to important relationships with people we might never have met. A facebook “like” isn’t just a meaningless bit. It matters to us, and it constitutes real power once a post gets enough attention. At the same time, there are forces of darkness which are incredibly strong and patient. The Internet really scares them. Digital borders look very different from geographic borders, and that scares them. He shared part of a poem by Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Rebecca agreed. One of the reasons she wrote the book is that she loves the Internet and she wants the good online to continue and be amplified. She wants to make sure the forces of darkness do not dim the potential that we’re seeing online. Her book was really meant for people who don’t spend all their time thinking about the Internet, people who use the Internet but who haven’t thought about what it means for them as citizens– people whose views will shape the future of the Internet. Lots of people assume the Internet is going to result in freedom and doesn’t need protecting. But the Internet might not prevail. This kind of technological determinism is dangerous because it leads us to abdicate personal responsibility for the future of the Internet.

Andrew Slack of the Harry Potter Alliance asked Rebecca, “what is the model of society that the Internet will create?” Rebecca thinks it will be something organic and decentralised rather than just an “empire of the cloud.” It needs to facilitate a good society without abusing power. Given the nature of the Internet, we can probably expect something very distributed. This makes it incredibly difficult to say, “here’s the org chart of the future of the Internet.” Asserting rights and pursuing interests will require us to organise in innovative ways. In the short term, we should expect to enter a messy period.

Another attendee asked about the lack of reported censorship in sub-saharan Africa on the Google transparency report. Rebecca answered that governments may be making requests, but in some cases Google isn’t able or isn’t choosing to respond to those requests. Chinese companies have been very successful in Africa, justifying themselves by pointing out that they have lots of experience working in authoritarian countries. Ethan reminded us that Google’s censorship map doesn’t respond to the scariest forms of censorship, where American allies like Ethiopia lock up or kill people rather than filter the Internet.

Andres Monroy-Hernandez, who has been researching the role of the Internet in Mexican drug violence, asked where rogue and criminal organisations fit into Rebecca’s model of the public, companies, and the government. Rebecca responded that one reason the government is called upon to regulate the Internet is to deal with criminals.

Another attendee raised the issue of Internet neutrality. He asked Rebecca what she thought about the Obama administration’s stance on Internet neutrality. Rebecca has been disappointed by the administration’s stance on surveillance. Before election, Obama talked about reshaping the Patriot Act and other surveillance laws. But after election, his administration has opposed reform and encouraged weakened accountability. Rebecca also argued in favour of net neutrality, pointing out that allowing Internet companies to prioritise content is a problem for free speech. This is a particular problem in the case of the mobile Internet, especially when some groups are only accessing the Internet via mobile phones.

Rebecca concluded by reminding us that we shouldn’t ask if companies have enlightened, principled leaders. Instead, we should figure out how to shape the self-interest of companies towards good.