You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Who Really Rules?

TWITTER'S RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT that the social network will allow country-specific censorship aroused fury on and off the Internet. Under the new policy, Twitter will place a gray bar over tweets deemed inappropriate for popular consumption by local governmental authorities. Commentators, protesters, and “Tweetavists” expressed their outrage. Blackout protests were proposed in response, and activists warned of the potential of unreported massacres in Syria. Since then, however, the company has made clear that it will only censor tweets when it receives specific and valid requests to do so. But worry remains, and rightfully so: Will the once staid social networking giant, and others like it, condone online censorship in the future?

That is the fundamental question posed by Rebecca MacKinnon in her well-researched exploration of the forces driving Internet policy today. MacKinnon offers a persuasive history of recent global protest movements, and her book serves as a primer on the role that Internet technology and by extension digital networks have played in those efforts. She offers a framework for concerned citizens to understand complex power dynamics among governments, corporations, and citizens of cyberspace. But this fine book comes up short when it turns prescriptive. 

“Net freedom” means different things to different people, but on the global stage the Internet freedom movement is fundamentally linked to efforts to hold governments, corporate actors, and digital networks accountable to “Netizens,” while preserving freedom of speech and expression online. “It is time,” MacKinnon says, “to stop arguing 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.”

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.

Pierce Stanley is a digital media fellow at The New Republic.