- Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon
In the wake of the Arab Spring and the still-to-be resolved conflicts across North Africa and the Middle East, the idea of social networks as a vehicle for change has taken center stage. This latest iteration of using the Internet to connect likeminded people in support of common goals demonstrates the staying power of the basic [End Page 114] technology that goes all the way back to bulletin boards and early chat rooms. While Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport's Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011) is a prescient account (using pre-Arab Spring examples) of how social media can be used to foment change, this focus on the positive uses of Internet technology often overshadows the growing concerns about the loss of freedom and civil liberties due to government interference and corporate policies. Though the latter culprits are ably examined in Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (New York: Penguin, 2011), Rebecca MacKinnon's debut book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom takes the broader view of how both corporations and governments are contributing to the increasing erosion of online freedom.
MacKinnon, a blogger, cofounder of the Global Voices international citizen media network, former CNN journalist, and a former senior fellow at the New America Foundation, takes aim at the many threats to free expression on the Internet. Her book examines how changes big and small have impacted our abilities to use the Internet without fear of repercussions. Organized in five parts, the book provides the context for how we arrived at the current situation (Disruptions), details the scope of government intrusion using examples from authoritarian regimes around the globe (Control 2.0), examines how democratic governments also assail Internet freedoms (Democracy's Challenges), reveals the growing power of corporations (Sovereigns of Cyberspace), and offers remedies for change that may yet preserve a modicum of freedom (What Is to Be Done?). The final section is the longest and offers a detailed critique of what is wrong and what must be fixed. Of particular interest is the final chapter: "Building a Netizen-Centric Internet." Using a combination of context-setting anecdotes and examples of successful initiatives and organizations devoted to maintaining and expanding our online rights, MacKinnon outlines how the current challenges we face can be successfully confronted. Her inclusion of the ten-point Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet signals her assessment that many corporations and democratic governments have miles to go before they catch up to the desired standards of the average Internet user.
One concern with the book is the frequency with which MacKinnon refers to her own projects (the Global Network Initiative and Global Voices) as exemplars for how citizens can band together to address the negative trends in Internet freedoms. While it is understandable that she wants to promote these organizations, the book occasionally reads like an advertisement for them. Featuring other examples more prominently would have avoided the lopsided focus.
This book is not intended to give practical advice on how to reclaim our freedoms on the Internet. Rather, it is a manifesto that clearly outlines the present dangers to civil liberties and identifies the areas in which we must work to preserve and reclaim what is important. What's needed next is a road map for accomplishing all the tasks laid out by MacKinnon. Perhaps a second book is in order. [End Page 115]