In Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (Basic Books), Internet policy researcher and advocate Rebecca MacKinnon dissects the complicated issues surrounding civil rights, democracy, and the rise of internet institutions like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—institutions which aren’t always looking out for the best interests of their users. Tip Sheet caught up with the busy author, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank New America Foundation, to discuss the latest political news from the cyber-frontier.
Clearly, the recent political skirmish over proposed internet copyright legislation bills SOPA and PIPA has been a victory for Silicon Valley over Hollywood, but from the point of view of "the networked," has this fight been a victory, a defeat, or a distraction?
I think this was a victory and it shows that when people get focused and organized they can really have an impact on Washington. It was also an awakening for a lot of people who have never paid much attention to Internet-related legislation being considered or passed by Congress—or haven't thought much about how these bills and laws affect them personally. The question now is whether the people who got mobilized around SOPA and PIPA, called their senators and congresspeople, and agitated on the Internet, will become a political force by making clear that candidates' record on Internet issues will be an important factor in their voting decisions. That is not yet clear. So it was definitely a short-term victory but we will see whether it will be a long-term victory.
Also there are other bills—dealing with cybersecurity and surveillance for instance—on which the tech industry has different opinions and about which the general public knows little. Yet they have a huge impact on the government's ability to access our personal communications through corporate networks. You don't see Silicon Valley trying to rally the networked masses over these issues. If we want to hold our elected representatives accountable on things like surveillance—and hold Sillicon Valley accountable for protecting our privacy—we are on our own.
In the future "the networked" will sometimes form alliances with the Silicon Valley companies against Congress, but sometimes we are going to want and need to target our campaigns for change at the companies themselves.
What do you hope the average Facebooker/Twitterer/Googler/Amazonian/Blackberrian takes away from your book? What can a regular yahoo do in face of Yahoo?
We are not helpless. The way these companies evolve—and the way the Internet evolves more generally—is not predetermined. It is not a force of nature. All of the networked technologies we depend on today are the result of specific choices by human beings. Everybody who uses the Internet has the power and ability to influence these choices to some extent. Seemingly small choices and small actions add up over time. You don't have to be a nerd, or a programmer, or a network engineer to make a difference.
To the companies, we can articulate clearly what we want and what we don't want. When they do something that upsets us or makes us feel disempowered, we need to let them know. We can use their own technologies to organize for change. We can make it clear that those companies who want to earn our long-term trust and loyalty must listen to us.
As voters, we can make it clear that we are actually paying attention to how our elected representatives are voting on Internet-related laws, and that their record matters to us at the ballot box.
As investors, we can consider what we are financing and why. Over the past several decades a growing number of investors have been choosing to put their money in funds that screen companies for their environmental and labor records. Some socially responsible investors are starting to add free expression and privacy to their list of criteria.
As employees and managers working for these companies, we can take personal responsibility for whether we are developing products that are not only "cool" but which are also compatible with the democratic values and freedoms we cherish in our physical world.