Book review: Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon


I just finished Consent of the Networked today. This title, of course, is a play on the idea of the consent of the governed. Where governments are only able to govern with the express permission of the people it governs. We have seen recently with the Arab spring that it is possible to reject the govdrnment and show that the governed do not consent.

The book starts with a discussion of how the internet is different than traditional governments. As, most people are aware the internet is international, operated by many different actors including individuals governments and companies, and is not has some of its own rules and norms which are different than the physical world.

Because of the diverse set of stakeholders for the internet the way we (an average person) is different based on the country you live in, the network you are using and the relationship between your government and businesses from other countries. Then toss in advocates that use the internet to promote democracy (or are progovernment) and human rights experts and we have a very messy situation that will likely lead to more and more conflict.

Some of these conflicts are unsurprising, such as countriess like China, Iran and prefall Egypt and Tunisia want greater and greater control of their internet and networks. Which the US State department doesn’t want and puts the countries in great disagreement over the future of the internet. However this is not the only source of conflicts. There is conflict in the US itself.

The State department is pushing for more circumvention tools and techniques to make it possible to get around firwalls. TOR is one of these I’ve talked about in the past. However, the US legislature is pushing for more control and better access to what data is flowing and ways to block it. These laws, SOPA, PIPA and now CISPA all attempt to contol the internet in the name of IP or cybersecurity. However, they are methods that allow censorship and control over the internet. The US is not the only country implementing these laws, the UK has and the EU parliment is still considering ACTA.

MacKinnon also indicates that these actions help to validate countries like China. In some cases the support comes from artists like Bono or the RIAA when they say they want the same abilities as China for blocking access to content. However, the laws can only do what companies are capable of providing to governments and consumers and other agencies.

Copyright laws would be useless if companies had not created ways to inspect data and then stop the transfer. Some of this comes in tne form of filters and blockers for parents. These can be applied at the national level. Cisco and other major western comoanies provide equipment through sales to countries like China for the firewalls and censorship abilities.

These are not the only way businesses are complicit with repressive regimes (in many cases the equipment is essentially off the shelf), MacKinnon also describes the cases of Yahoo and other companies where they hand personal information over to the regimes. In some cases this has led to death for the person whose information was requested. Of course this isn’t just in China, but the same companies hand data over in the US and other democracies.

At this point human rights groups and other rights groups have become more active around the world on matters of the internet. A large portion of her book deals with these problems with through a human rights perspective. I believe that this is a good way to look at these problems. This levels the field across socio-economic levels. It begins with the assumption that protection of data should be universal. It frames the perspective that she argues for netizens to engage and to be active in address these issues.

She argues that we can’t expect the next CEO of Facebook to be benevolent as Zuckerberg has sort of been. The netizens need to pressure companies and governments for better clarity of what our data is being used for, how long it is stored and why it is collected. This important, because we “consent” by clicking I accept without reading and with no control over a change in contract. Anger at changes Facebook has made lead to changes, so as a group we have the ability to effect change at companies. We have also seen what collective action can do to government in light of the SOPA and ACTA discussions.

These matters are important because they affect all of us. This book does an excellent job explaining what is at stake. It provides a perspective from the developing world and the people under dictatorships. It highlights the fine line we are currently treading and that countries like the US and UK could easily slip from democracy into digital dictatorships where the views of a select few are paid a great deal of attention and the rest are ignore and censored.

Over all i give this book 4/5. At times the book was somewhat repetitive but it was to ensure the point was made. This book should be read by any cyber activist, developmental scholar and student of dictatorships.

One thought on “Book review: Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon

  1. Pingback: Failure of DMCA and TPP is going to be worse | Science, Technology, + Culture

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