Discussion On Consent of the Networked, By Rebecca MacKinnon: The Techdirt Book Club

from the off-we-go dept

As promised, here is our discussion with Rebecca MacKinnon, the author of Consent of the Networked, a fascinating book about the fine balance online today between the ability to use the internet for amazingly positive activism… as well as the threats of those who seek to control and limit the internet to prevent those kinds of actions. Rebecca was kind enough to answer some of the questions brought up in the discussion space at our Step2 platform, and we’re reposting the Q&A here for folks to discuss below:

Could users push for change on their own or would it need to be an effort including governments and positive examples from industry?

It depends on what “change” you’re specifically talking about. If it’s a bad law (like SOPA) that industry doesn’t like either, then you can have alliances between users and companies against government stupidity or evilness. Other times companies do bad things – like violate users’ privacy – and users ask government to help rein them in (or at least some do – people are divided about whether government involvement is more productive or counterproductive). Sometimes you have situations where government and companies are colluding together against users, customers, and citizens.

The point is that we need a wide and diverse global movement for Internet freedom, rights and liberties. I draw a parallel from the environmental and labor movements. The only reason companies ever do the right thing when it comes to environmental and labor practices is due to massive global movements through which people exacted costs on companies for bad behavior in their various roles as consumers, investors, voters, and activists. It’s not that they are perfect by any means but decades of activism on all fronts has undeniably brought real improvements if you compare the situation to 50 years ago.

Similarly the only reason why government gets it right on policies and laws related to the environment or anything related to civil liberties for that matter is thanks to long-standing citizen activism. Politicians and CEO’s don’t just wake up one day and decide to do the right thing. They generally do the right thing because they fear that the public will make them pay one way or another if they don’t. The public currently isn’t exacting sufficiently high costs on companies and governments when they violate our digital rights and liberties. We need to start making it clearer that we’re serious, and find more effective ways to make that clear.

Which projects do you think have the most potential for expanding the digital commons?

I’ve listed quite a number in the “get involved” section of my book’s website. I’m inclined to think that having a robust digital commons requires a diverse ecosystem of many large and small projects and initiatives all over the world rather than one or two massive centralized uber-projects.

What major events have occured since you published that you wished you could have included? Is there anything in the book that you might change in a next edition?

I used a fairly traditional old-school publisher so the text was really finalized in August 2011. A lot happened between then and the book’s release on February 1st. The biggest event was the anti-SOPA fight, of course. I will definitely include an update about that and probably also the nasty cybersecurity bills Congress is considering. Things happen every day that relate to the book.

The point of the book, though, was not to have an up-to-the-minute account of everything – that’s what blogs and articles are for. The point was to make a broader conceptual argument about trends and problems, and what we need to do about them. I think my broader argument and framing of the problems we face has held up pretty well. Another point worth making is that this book wasn’t actually written with the typical reader of tech blogs in mind. It was written for people who rarely read anything about tech other than what shows up in MSM, who may have never read an “Internet book” before, but who care about the future of democracy in the Internet age and who badly need to be educated about what the threats to our digital liberties are, the power struggle being waged for control of the internet, and what ordinary non-techie people can do about it.

What is the most egregious example of corporate censhorship?

I describe in these excerpts here and here how the most insidious abuse of digital power is when you combine unnacountable government with unaccountable companies. Different permutations, variations and degrees can be found around the world.

What could the average user be doing today to have input on the networks and intermediaries that they use daily?

I think we need to see users and customers getting together in associations, developing leadership from the bottom up, then demanding that company management meet with them in person. We need to get more innovative with how we combine the best techniques of online organizing with old fashioned in-your-face, in-the-flesh collective bargaining.

Thanks to Rebecca for being the first to take part in this new “book club” experiment. I’m interested in the discussion that follows. And don’t forget to check out the book club selection for April!

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