Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 21 May 12 06:16
We are fortunate to have Rebecca MacKinnon with us to discuss her new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. "It is time 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." Our own Jon Lebkowsky will be leading the interview. Please join them for what promises to be a deep and far ranging discussion about the issues of digital life, liberty and your online pursuits.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 22 May 12 14:45
Rebecca, could you say a little about the work you've been doing for the last decade or so, and how it inspired you to write this particular book?
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Thu 24 May 12 04:08
10 years ago I was CNN's Tokyo Bureau Chief. 11 years ago I moved to Japan from China after living in Beijing for 9 years straight, working for CNN. In 2004 I decided to take a break from a 12-year career with CNN in Asia and became a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. I planned to return to Tokyo after five or six months off, but instead I ended up quitting my job. There were lots of reasons I won't go into here because they have nothing to do with the book. But to make a long story short, I became excited by and even obsessed with the idea that journalists no longer had a monopoly on international news. Bloggers were emerging all over the world, covering their countries and regions with perspectives and facts that mainstream news organizations simply weren't reporting. I ended up moving over to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society where Ethan Zuckerman and I organized a meeting of bloggers from around the world in late 2004, and that turned into Global Voices Online, an international citizen media community that has since grown organically beyond our wildest imagination at the time. Almost immediately, we had to deal with threats that our community members faced: not only censorship but surveillance, threats, and sometimes even imprisonment. I watched as governments began to fight back against online activism in a range of ways. In 2005 I also started to do a lot of research and writing about Chinese social media and Internet censorship, because of my Chinese language facility and experience in China. In 2006 I wrote a report for Human Rights Watch on the complicity of Western companies in Chinese Internet censorship. Then in 2007 I moved to Hong Kong to teach online journalism and continue research on Chinese social media and censorship. I did a lot of writing in which I sought to explain to a Western audience how the Chinese government has coopted Internet companies into doing much of its censorship and surveillance work. Through my global work with Global Voices and another organization called the Global Network Initiative which tries to get Internet and telecommunications companies to adhere to basic human rights standards, I also realized that the cooptation of the private sector by governments to carry out censorship and surveillance is a rapidly-spreading global trend. By 2008 I decided that writing articles about these issues was not enough. I was increasingly frustrated by one-dimensional analyses and naive thinking about the Internet and its impact on global politics by policymakers, media, and activists. I realized had a bigger argument I needed to make about the geopolitical power struggles taking place over the Internet's present and future. Non-technical people tend to assume that the Internet's nature is a constant, not a variable. They don't realize the extent to which what they can or cannot do online or through their mobile phones is the result of many specific decisions by engineers, programmers, business managers, executives, bureaucrats, and politicians. Depending on what decisions are made going forward, the Internet could evolve in a range of different ways, some of which would be more compatible with freedom, civil liberties and democracies than others. People need to better understand the various forces shaping our digital lives so that as voters, consumers, users of technology and investors, we can fight back against whoever might be infringing or constraining our rights - governments or companies or some combination of the two.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 24 May 12 06:33
One thing that's clear from your book is that the Internet can as readily enable oppression as liberation. It can be a platform for a more democratic participation in governance as well as a platform for surveillance and control. There was much excitement about the Internet's role in the "Arab Spring," is that excitement justified? Has the Internet really made a difference in the Middle East?
Mike Godwin (mnemonic) Thu 24 May 12 11:06
I'm very glad to see Rebecca here. Although we've never worked together directly, I've found her contributions distinctly valuable in the work I have done with Public Knowledge and with the Wikimedia Foundation. (When I joined WMF in 2007, Rebecca was on the Advisory Board, which was exciting, and I met her in person in Taiwan that year, as I recall.) Welcome, Rebecca!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 24 May 12 11:23
For those who want to share it, the short url for this discussion is http://bit.ly/rmackinnon. If you have a comment or question, and are not a member of the WELL, you can still submit. Look at the bottom of this screen, and select the link where it says "Non-members: Submit a comment or question."
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Thu 24 May 12 15:46
Thanks Mike for your kind words! I have always admired your work too and hope we cross paths again sooner than later! John, to address your question, the Internet has indeed "made a difference" in the Middle East and North Africa - as it has in every place where a critical mass of people are using the Internet. But one has to be clear about what "made a difference" means. I would not equate "made a difference" necessarily with "changing the political power structure". There are a few places where people have been successful in using the Internet as a tool and platform for carrying out political regime change, like Tunisia and Egypt. In other places, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iran the Internet is having a profound impact on society, culture, business, and even politics. But authoritarian regimes and corrupt old-guard economic interests have maintained their power. I will take the liberty of quoting liberally from something I recently wrote for an online symposium on digital activism held by the Cato Institute (see http://www.cato-unbound.org/): Internet connectivity and widespread social media adoption do not on their own guarantee activisms success. The Internet is not some sort of automatic freedom juice. Success or failure of digital activism depends on a plethora of variables economic, cultural, religious, commercial, political, personal, and accidents of history. In his seminal book "The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam," Philip N. Howard, a professor at the University of Washington and expert on technology and political change in the Islamic world, concludes that while the Internet and mobile technologies do not cause change, change is unlikely to happen without sufficient mobile and Internet penetration. Indeed, the two Arab countries in which dictators were deposed without civil war in 2011 were Tunisia and Egypt both of which have relatively high rates of Internet penetration and social media use compared to many other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. However as I discuss at some length in my book, the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt did not spring immaculately from Twitter and Facebook. Movements for political change in these countries developed and matured over the course of a decade; then when the right moment came activists were in a position to take advantage of it. Activists experimented with networked technologies, honed their messages over time, built support networks and generally worked to use Internet and mobile platforms to their maximum advantage. They also spent a decade building offline relationships both nationally and regionally and honing offline protest skills. The revolutions success in Tunisia and Egypt had much to do with widespread economic grievances and anger over state corruption. Another factor was the relative lack of sectarian divisions in Egypt and Tunisia as compared to other countries in the region. This contrasts sharply with Bahrain which also boasts deep Internet penetration and widespread social media usage, but whose society is torn asunder by a deep sectarian divide between majority Shiites and Sunni political elites. This divide has enabled the ruling Al Khalifa family to suppress dissent violently and with impunity aided by other geopolitical factors including support from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which considers Sunni activism on its doorstep to be a dangerous sign of Iranian political meddling. Then there is the presence in Bahrain of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a geopolitical rather than a technological reality that makes rapid political change in Bahrain all the less likely. In Syria, Internet penetration is much more shallow and online communities much weaker to begin with. This, combined with a sharp sectarian divide has meant that while activists have been able to use the Internet to get information out to the world about the Assad regimes atrocities against its own people, conventional geopolitics not new media will be the decisive factor in deciding when and how Assad will fall from power. Another point I make in the book is that while the Internet was an important factor in bringing down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, what role the Internet will play in building stable and successful democracies in those countries is a lot less clear. The young tech-savvy activists who played a key role in their countries' revolutions for the most part failed to get elected to the transitional assemblies in Tunisia and Egypt and are not playing an influential role in electoral politics. In both countries substantial numbers of elected representatives came to office on pro-censorship platforms, appealing to conservative religious constituencies who believe that the internet should be kept clean of "blasphemy" - as they choose to define it. In Egypt particularly, surveillance technologies purchased from the West (including from a California based company called Narus - owned by Boeing -whose products are known to have helped the NSA spy on Americans through AT&T) continue to be used by the transitional government to track activists and non-governmental organizations.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 24 May 12 21:07
In the book, you also write about the role (and control) of the Internet in China. How does Internet deployment and use differ in China from the Middle East?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 25 May 12 07:36
Rebecca Have you been following the story about the hassidic Jews who held a conference in NYC regarding using or banning the internet within those communities? There is historic precedent for that and it is just about a repeat of the "haskala" movement when people started to introduce secular books and influences into the closed traditional Eastern European Jewish communities. The arguments even appear to be the same.
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Fri 25 May 12 11:06
Hi there David, no I haven't followed that story. Will look into it, definitely.
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Sat 26 May 12 10:36
As I describe in detail in the third chapter of my book, unlike the governments of the Middle East and North Africa which didn't focus in any clear way on the Internet and its political implications until much later, the Chinese government took the Internet seriously as both a political threat and economic opportunity from the moment commercial Internet services came to China in the mid-1990s. The Chinese government not only built the worlds most sophisticated system of filtering and blocking overseas websites, including most famously most Google-owned services, Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, the government encouraged the development of a robust domestic Internet and telecommunications industry so that Chinese technology users can enjoy an abundant variety of domestically run social media platforms, online information services, Internet and mobile platforms, and devices produced by Chinese companies. By imposing strong political and legal liability on Internet companies, the government forced companies many financed by Western capital not only to foot the bill for much of the regimes censorship and surveillance needs but to do much of the actual work. For more about how the system of Internet control works in China, check out these two free excerpt from chapter 3: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/29/rebecca-mackinnon-inside-chinas -censorship-machine/ http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/28/rebecca-mackinnnon-chinas-netwo rked-authoritarianism/ Online activism still does occur in China but due to multiple layers of censorship and surveillance, activisms successes have for the most part been local, presenting minimal threat to the power of the central government and Communist Party. Users of the Chinese twitter-like social networking platform Weibo have ruined the careers of local and provincial officials by exposing their corruption. Chinese netizens, as they like to call themselves, have also called attention to specific errors or incompetencies of specific parts of the bureaucracy, which the central government has then moved to fix which in many ways boosts the central governments power and credibility as compared to local governments or specific ministers seeking to develop independent power bases. To date, activists who have tried to use social media to build national movements for systemic political change have consistently gone to jail or been placed under house arrest, their supporters and friends often harassed and threatened with loss of jobs and educational opportunities even if they have not technically committed any crime by Chinese law. The case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng may or may not serve as a watershed moment for Chinese activism it remains too early to tell. But it does, the reasons for digital activisms success in China will have as much to do with offline domestic and international factors as with anything technological: a leadership crisis at the top of the Communist Party precipitated by the downfall of the power-hungry Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai; plus specific developments not only in the U.S.-China diplomatic relationship but also U.S. domestic partisan politics which Chens supporters have taken skillful advantage of, using social media of course. I recently wrote a couple articles for Foreign Policy about social media and circumvention technologies in China, and the impact they are having in spite of censorship: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/17/the_not_so_great_firewall_of_ china http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/05/02shawshank_prevention For more great information about what's happening on and with the Chinese Internet I strongly recommend the website run by my good friend Xiao Qiang out of Berkeley. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/
Gail Williams (gail) Sun 27 May 12 14:01
That's fascinating. I remember meeting a grad student from China at MIT in the 90s, and having a short conversation about what he was studying. I asked him if he was supposed to go back to try to filter out everything interesting that was happening in the West, and he told me that although that would be part of the work they would be doing, he expected that he and his friends would still have access to anything. Sheesh. They certainly gave a visa to the right person, from their perspective.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 28 May 12 18:18
How have activists and businesses in the USA helped and hindered freedom to connect globally?
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Wed 30 May 12 15:17
First let's clarify what "freedom to connect" actually means and how it relates to Internet freedom more broadly. "Freedom to connect" means that people a) are free (as in speech, not as in beer) to access the Internet and b) can access information without censorship or manipulation. But even if networks are free, I argue in the book and have been arguing in speeches and articles recently, people aren't free without freedom from fear. And freedom from fear on the net is not possible when publicly unaccountable surveillance is pervasive on the networks people are using. For more on this argument see this article I wrote last week for Mark News: http://tinyurl.com/c8tbnv4 Also see a talk I gave last week at David Isenberg's "Freedom to Connect" conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeN5mx3Gglc Here is an excerpt from my notes for the talk: "Freedom to Connect is not enough. Internet freedom - for humans - doesn't just mean free networks. It means free people. It means freedom from fear. A genuinely free internet must include the ability to hold power accountable - not just censorship power but also surveillance power. In the Internet age, it is technically trivial for corporations and governments to gain access to people's private communications and track their movements. Without strong global standards of public transparency and accountability in how surveillance technologies are deployed, and how information is shared, the empowering potential of the Internet diminishes quickly." Now to your question about American businesses. It's a complex picture with positives as well as negatives. As I describe in quite a lot of detail in chapter 4 and elsewhere in the book, many American businesses are selling copious amounts of surveillance and censorship technologies to all kinds of regimes. Narus, owned by Boeing, which also sold wiretapping equipment to the NSA which installed it inside AT&T facilities, sold similar equipment to Mubarak's Egypt and around the Middle East and North Africa. The EFF has a lot of resources about this as well, including a white paper on what companies should do if they care about human rights. See: https://www.eff.org/document/human-rights-and-technology-sales A lot of other American (and other) companies doing business around the world find themselves under pressure from local governments to censor content and hand over user information on demand. This has resulted in some companies being complicit in censorship and surveillance. The most extreme examples emerged in China a few years ago with Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Skype, among others. Yahoo handed dissident information over to the Chinese police, Microsoft censored Chinese blogs in response to phone calls from the cops. Google went into China with a censored search engine (which it later removed in 2010). Skype was found to have allowed spyware to be installed on the joint venture Chinese version of its software. (More on that history here: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/08/09/race-bottom) As a result of what was happening, Congress started calling executives into hearings wanting to know why they were serving as handmaidens of repression, etc. But while the problem was most severe in China it was clear even in 2006 when the hearings started that governments all around the world are demanding that companies - including American companies - comply with politically motivated "law enforcement" demands, and that companies feel they have no choice to comply in order to do business anywhere. To address this problem, I became involved with the formation of an organization called the Global Network Initiative (globalnetworkinitiative.org) which is trying to get companies to sign on to basic human rights principles on free expression and privacy, then work with other stakeholders including human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academic researchers to figure out how to live up to these principles in situations that are technically and politically complicated and often not black and white at all. Two of the thorniest places for companies these days are India and Thailand - both democracies - where democratically elected governments have passed draconian laws holding Internet companies liable for their users' activities, making life very difficult for American companies that want to "do the right thing" by their users and also not have their local employees arrested or get kicked out of the country. The companies that joined GNI - Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Websense, and Evoca as full members and now Facebook and Afilias as observers have taken an important step in recognizing that there are real human rights dilemmas and risks to their businesses which they have to take seriously if they are going to enhance the freedom of Internet users around the world in a genuine and lasting way. Now, I assume everybody here is familiar with the recent fight to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), where we saw a joining of forces between American Internet companies and activists against the entertainment industry and other American companies that fall under the category of "the copyright lobby." It is unfortunate that some American businesses want to corrode people's freedom to connect in order to protect their outmoded business models, and fortunate that other American businesses are putting some serious cash and lobbying muscle into countering them. But congress wouldn't have halted its trajectory if it hadn't been for the grassroots activists like Fightforthefuture.org and many others, as well as nonprofits like Wikipedia who brought a moral force to the argument that tipped the scales and mobilized voters to call their representatives. When it comes to legislation like the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which passed the House and is on its way to the Senate, the role of American Internet companies is a lot more troubling. Despite concerns that this legislation lacks safeguards that would protect Americans from unaccountable spying by the NSA and others, many American businesses continue to support it because they are concerned about the security of their networks and want something to be done. They have yet to be convinced that they should only support legislation that contains adequate civil liberties protections. Which brings me back to the original point- achieving freedom to connect is much easier than achieving freedom from illegitimate, unaccountable surveillance. Finally, there is the issue of what I call the power exercised by Internet companies over people's identities and their privacy. This has more to do with freedom from fear than freedom to connect. To make a long story short, American companies like Google and Facebook do a much better job at freedom to connect than they do at freedom from fear. For a taste of what my book says about the lands of Facebookistan and Googledom, see this adapted excerpt in Slate: http://tinyurl.com/6ujz9yp As for activists in the USA, people are doing a tremendous amount of good work fighting to keep our own Internet open and free, despite a lot of political and commercial forces pushing in the opposite direction. American activists working for Internet freedom elsewhere around are most effective, in my view, when they start from the premise that Internet freedom faces threats absolutely everywhere, and that the United States is a far cry from a perfect model particularly on issues of surveillance. Showing up with an attitude that basically says "Hi, I'm a white night from the land of the free riding in to save you" doesn't tend to go down well. A more effective attitude is "Hi, I'm here in solidarity to support you in your part of the global struggle. How can I be most helpful?" A number of times I've seen people from Egypt, Syria and China get asked that question. Often the answer is: "sort out your own country's contradictions so that our governments can have better models to follow."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 30 May 12 21:07
What you're describing is a complex distribution of power globally, power held both by governments and by multinational companies, and by combinations of the two that are often uneasy. This feels like a pot starting to boil, in danger of boiling over. You mention GNI - what are some other effective activist organizations working to "turn down the heat"?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 May 12 08:14
Rebecca, can you talk about the politics of Internet governance a bit more, as to solutions. The UN is holding a big conference in Dubai this December with the ITU (http://world2012.itu.int/). Any hope there? Is the move from ICAAN to the UN as a governing body for the NET a good one, or is the solution bottom-up, or realistically a combination of both?
Craig Maudlin (clm) Thu 31 May 12 08:51
Jon's question parallels one I've been trying to formulate. Your book very effectively conveys the interrelated nature of a complex set of difficult issues. Are there particular issues that you feel offer the best hope for positive outcomes?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 May 12 13:36
Odd place to find a good article about the Internet, but Vanity Fair has a good overview of the issues involved in regulation and what's ahead at the ITU Telecom conference coming up this December in Dubai: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/05/internet-regulation-war-sopa-pipa-de fcon-hacking
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 1 Jun 12 15:09
Nice article on you today Rebecca, via Big Think http://tinyurl.com/8yaph4d Great links and a video, woohoo!
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Sat 2 Jun 12 14:04
Rebecca MacKinnon (rmackinnon) Sat 2 Jun 12 14:06
I meant to include one more thing in response to Jon's question. On my book's website I have a section called "Get Involved" with a huge list of organizations that people who are so inclined can get involved with or support in various ways. http://consentofthenetworked.com/get-involved/
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 5 Jun 12 07:19
I saw something eye-opening in the local (San Francisco) daily paper. What do you think of this consumerist criticism of Google's new directions: > In ways large and small, the Mountain View search giant is setting up conflicts of interest across its varied business lines that will prove increasingly difficult - if not sometimes impossible - to reconcile. > > We saw two clear and troubling examples last week. On Wednesday, the company said it was integrating Zagat reviews into its social network and local search results, putting to use the popular business review publisher it purchased last fall. > ... > On Thursday, we saw an even more ominous shift in behavior as the company announced plans to replace Google Product Search, a tool that allowed users to compare product prices at retailers across the Web, with a "purely commercial" service known as Google Shopping. > > What that means is Google will now charge retailers to have their products listed in the service. ... <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/06/02/BUJ21OQKCM.DTL&ao= all> The personalized search results already annoy me. What does it mean to society to not have relatively neutral searching and navigation of the web?
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Tue 5 Jun 12 07:39
When was it "relatively neutral searching"? SOE is a business model, making sure search engines list your company above the competition.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 5 Jun 12 08:09
Relative to what's coming, it seems. Historically the idea of SEO was that the businesses out there were gaming the search engine's algorithms, in a battle between what businesses wanted and what searchers wanted. To my non-expert eye, these two recent moves look like Google wants in on some of that massive revenue that has been spent battling against the idea of what the user wants to see. I would love to know more from someone with an inside, philosophical viewpoint.
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Tue 5 Jun 12 08:20
Google has been manipulating search results for years. The CEO of Google personally requested that information about him be removed from google years ago, they banned a CNET reporter from doing interviews, etc. Schmidt even tried to get google to hide his political donations: <http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-04-01/tech/29982057_1_sheryl-sandberg -google-search-results>
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 5 Jun 12 08:31
True, there are demands for removal, and you can also opt out of being crawled if you want to be a preemptive exception. Recent changes toward taking money for listings and owning a company that is listed first do seem to be a turn in a different direction. Unless there has been pay to play that's been less visible, perhaps?
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