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.

Content and implicit threats

I’m reading “consent of the Networked” right now. The book is about digital rights, privacy, government and the internet. Once i finish I will write a review for the Urban Times. I found out about the book through TechDirt’s book club. One of the major points the author makes about repressive regimes is the activities of pronationalist actors that are not truly part of the government.

These actors are typically regular people and act as hackers, journalists or progovernment rally organizers. They are found in many countries including China, Iran, the former regime of Tunisia and Libya. In a way these groups are a counter weight to “organizations” like Anonymous, dissent groups and the “liberal” media. However, these organizations are unlikely in the US and Europe right?

Well according to the author now. These groups do exist in the US and in some cases are formal business like HBGary. Some of them actually work for the US government and others do with a wink and a nod. These groups help monitor internet users and potential members of groups like Anon. In many cases this extends the impression of continual  observation by the government and other actors, which can lead to self censorship and self selection for activities.

Has this happened to me? You bet it has, but I didn’t really think much of it at the time or how it could really impact me. One of the times happened during a Facebook conversation about Wikileaks, which I was supporting. The person I was discussing doesn’t like me much and thinks I’m “a rube.” He suggested that I should get a job which requires security clearance so I would get an understanding of how things actually work and that I was niave. Of course I disagree with the fact that I’m niave and I view the world in a much more complex manner than his black and white view. However, I had been thinking of applying to a government type position and he told me I should be careful what I say, which he is correct. This then led me to rein in my views and self censor. This had serious implications on how I discussed topics for some time.

The other times are slightly different and after I started blogging. For one my brother is in the Boarder Patrol which gives him clearance and my sister does stuff she can’t talk about. So, to some extent, I don’t want to negatively impact their ability to work either. This does have a moderating affect as well.

The final source was actually my dad writing to me about my post about anonymous and my discussion of using DDoS as potentially a source of public demonstration on the internet. I was not surprised that he suggested I be careful, he did retire as a Major in the Army Reserves. However, when responding I told him I was already being careful with my wording due to self censorship. I already expect that I’m likely to have my material spring up on someone’s radar due to the content I write about. So, I do try to be careful.

In a democracy where these threats should be minimized we have to worry about it. Why should the rest of the world be different or any less oppressive?

Loss of dignity when arrested?

Today the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it’s OK for prison officials to decide to strip search someone once arrested. In the case in question a man was wrongfully arrested and in two different prisons within the span of a week was required to strip and display himself to a guard. Kennedy argued that if guards had the ability to strip search anyone pulled over or arrested it is likely that Timmy McVey or one of the 9/11 terrorists would have been stopped ahead of time, as they were arrested days before they committed a crime.

This line of thinking is a very dangerous slippery slope. If we start allowing these unreasonable searches after a traffic violation arrest where is the stopping? At what point will it be allowable to strip search someone after a traffic violation with no arrest? While that’s one direction this could go the other direction has research and very recent photographic evidence.

What I’m talking about is the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Gharib. The Stanford Prison experiment is famous for the fact that it finished early due to the brutality of the “prison guards.” In the experiment a random selection of students were split between prisoner and prison guard. Over the course of a few days, the guards and prisoners started to really get into their role to the point that there were serious behavior changes. In fact many of the guards became extremely sadistic to the “prisoners” including beating them and abusing them emotionally. Due to the change in the behavior the experiment ended.

During the Iraq war photo evidence was released that showed systemic abuse that was at least on some level condoned by military and civil authority in the Pentagon. The abuse was used as a way to debase and demoralize the “terrorists,” which is not to say that some of them weren’t actual terrorists but there were innocents. These actions likely started harmlessly enough as strip searches and other activities. However, they escalated into pictures of naked pyramids.

Using these two historic cases as a back drop I think that we can see that there is great potential for abuse and escalation of these sorts of activities. It is well known that torture doesn’t really give us the information we need and it is unlikely that the next McVey or 9/11 terrorist will have something on them at the time of a random street arrest unless they are actively en route to their destination. In the case of the 9/11 terrorist the strip search would have likely found a box cutter and luggage for a trip. It’s unclear how if he would have been arrested it would have turned up enough evidence to put him away for life.

I am extremely disappointed with the SCOTUS with this ruling. While I understand some of the rational for the ruling, it seems heavy handed and likely to lead to abuses rather than the results the Court wishes to find.

Average people suffering from copyright laws

Ars Technica published a brief article about the woes of an average legal MegaUpload user suffering because he cannot access his legal content. At the same time Techdirt, points out that there are several large companies (NBC) and prominent politicians (Lamar Smith) using copyrighted material and will likely not receive any sort of punishment for these infringements.

This isn’t exactly the most surprising turn of events. Most of these companies will likely settle or just open up their large portfolios of copyrighted material to Apple or whomever and strike a deal. As users we typically don’t have the same rights and are expected to give up our rights when we use services.

In many cases the content that users generate are the value of the website or service that is being used. This network externality comes from other people using and building the network for the site. I like to argue that perceived value of the iOS and Android operating system aren’t the systems themselves or the hardware they are on or the cellular network, but rather the applications that are available within these environments. For example look at the problem that Nokia and Microsoft are experiencing with their phones and application stores. The quality of the OS is second to the application environment. Nokia’s N-9 that would have used their Meego OS appeared to be an amazing piece of machinery, but it was killed before it ever got a chance. Mostly because Nokia didn’t think that it alone could build the application environment needed to make the product a success.

In the case of user created content, the user’s rights typically are minimal and likely to be changed at any time. I think part of the reason we consent to these agreements is through ignorance. We don’t really know what we’re agreeing to for two reasons. First, when we go to a website we don’t even know we’re agreeing to a terms of use. Second, because the terms of use are complicated. Some websites have taken to writing the agreements in plain English but that’s few and far between.

How can this change? First there will have to be legal challenges. In the case of user created content being sold to a third party based on some esoteric terms of agreement, the validity of these sales are going to have to be challenged in court. In some cases they will likely be over turned in others they might not.

Users will also have to fight against these agreements and refuse to accept them and potentially sue places that abuse the content that users put on the site or that allow third party sites to take their content without permission.

Balance between the large players and the users needs to be restored.

Edit: This story about HuffPo also highlights this imbalance.