How do we ensure that the Internet develops in a way that is compatible with democracy? Given the strong push provided by social media to the recent uprisings in the Middle East region and elsewhere, how can people ensure that the same tools are not being used for government censorship and surveillance (often with more than a little help from Western technology companies)? And ultimately, how can we stop thinking of ourselves as passive “users” of technology but rather as “netizens” who take ownership and responsibility for our digital future?
These questions provide the general framework for discussion in Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, a new book by Rebecca McKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices (and co-author of the twice-monthly Netizen Report on GV Advocacy).
A comprehensive and timely effort, it is a call to action for every blogger or user of Twitter or Facebook, and particularly for cyber-activists at large, to collectively address the urgent issue of how technology should be governed to support the rights and liberties of citizens around the world. With a rigorous analysis and a positive tone, the final message is to get involved in a struggle that all of us have the power and ability to influence (even in small ways), if we only try to understand the complex forces at work, and how we might help shape them.
Divided in five major sections (Disruptions; Control 2.0; Democracy’s challenges; Sovereigns of cyberspace; What is to be done?), the book covers a variety of events over the past decade and is quite up to date, with parts devoted to the Arab Spring and the Egyptian government’s surveillance capabilities, privacy and control in Western democracies, and the rise of “Facebookistan and Googledom”. The book's companion website offers fresh updates and more resources.
The Global Voices network is mentioned here and there, with direct quotes and references. For instance, the book preface speaks briefly about the community's inception, growth, and crucial role in recent events:
As protests erupted in Tunisia in late 2010 and demonstrations spread around the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, Global Voices contributors worked around the clock to spread information about what was happening in multiple languages, on our own site as well as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
The first part of the book focuses on interconnections in technology, society and business that fueled the Internet's development so far, giving rise to a “digital commons” that includes innovative practices, digital activism, and people's empowerment. This is an exciting environment that nonetheless faces opposition, defined as “Control 2.0”: “…how opaque, unaccountable relationships with Internet and telecommunications companies enables authoritarian governments to control and manipulate citizens.”
China is a primary case study here, with a detailed description of its refined censorship system and recent developments to maintain authoritarian control, while at the same time enabling, “…high levels of lively and even contentious online debate and deliberation, within certain limits.”
After describing similar (or worse) situations in countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Syria, the focus shifts to Western democracies — who unfortunately appear inclined to emulate authoritarian regimes, even if in subtle and insidious ways. That is, technology companies are establishing equally opaque and unaccountable relationships with government agencies, and fail to, “…take responsibility for their power over citizens’ political lives, and their lack of accountability in the exercise of that power.”
The various examples discussed here include WikiLeaks, privacy complaints on Facebook, ‘Big Brother’ Apple, and Net Neutrality. Along with the on-going battle about intellectual property vs. free speech and sharing (see the global initiative against SOPA-PIPA, and the recent ‘selective censorship‘ announced by Twitter). Also addressed are lesser-known issues, such as a 2011 proposal to create a “single European cyberspace” that would block “illicit content” at Europe’s borders.
Finally, the last section of the book attempts to answer the question of “What is to be done?”, proposing the development of a Netizen-centric Internet. This part explores efforts by some governments, a few companies, and a growing number of concerned citizens to address the threats to freedom in cyberspace through new initiatives and movements. Some suggestions include: boosting corporate transparency; building processes for corporate engagement with users, customers, and other stakeholders; and building a more citizen-driven information environment.
At the end of the day, this Struggle For Internet Freedom is taking place here and now — in Arab countries, in East Asia and even in Western nations. It is a common struggle, and it is up to each and all of us, as netizens and citizens of the world, to monitor the state of affairs and make sure the Internet remains a force for freedom of expression and political liberation — rather than a tool for alienation, censorship and repression.