Before I had the chance to review Internet policy researcher Rebecca MacKinnon’s latest work, Consent of the Networked, I caught an interview with her on CBC’s Spark podcast, a great source of commentary on technology, social media, and culture. MacKinnon’s current area of research fascination is how Internet users in various geographic locations and vastly differing political climates are impacted by decisions made by governments they never voted for and under whose jurisdictions they do not fall.
It’s a timely topic, with news stories emerging every day about how bloggers in China or Iran are discouraged by various means from continuing to report situations or opinions on the ground that impact the very foundations of Internet freedom. MacKinnon asserts that the vast majority of us are too complacent, and that the entities responsible for regulating control of the Internet, or allowing web-based commerce and transactions to happen freely, don’t have the same interests as the common everyday user of the world wide web. She writes, “Sadly, the elected leaders of the world’s oldest democracies are disappointing the people who could most use their help by demonstrating very little enlightened leadership and a great deal of short-term self-interest.”
Efforts to quash free use of the Internet don’t always originate with what some might see as a controlling dictatorship, either. Many tools are being co-opted for purposes that contradict the creator’s intent, like cameras produced by American companies that are being used for citizen surveillance abroad, or website monitoring software sold to parents in the US and intended to block pornography. If a government uses that kind of technology as part of a blanket approach to blocking inappropriate content, all it takes to get a legitimate website or blog blocked is to add a comment with a link to a porn site.
These stories may seem minor to an outsider, but the infringement on the human rights of citizens caught up in the circle of enforcement is frightening. Not to mention that these efforts are inefficient and often ineffectual; MacKinnon cites researchers in Europe who found that a website campaigning against child pornography has been blocked multiple times in The Netherlands for setting off Internet filtering technology alarm bells.
MacKinnon is a whiz at providing names and details of companies and individuals complicit in these kinds of abuses. When Google pulled its search engine out of China, the move made big headlines, and Google was applauded for balancing their moral compass against their profit margins. On the other side of that story is Apple, whose flagship products continue to be manufactured in China; stories about questionable treatment of factory employees has forced Apple to take a closer look at the situation for workers who bolster the company’s remarkable financial success.
MacKinnon’s best moments are those when she delivers anecdotes about the state of the Internet in China or other regions she has worked in. Fluent in Mandarin, MacKinnon spent nearly a decade as a CNN correspondent in Beijing, including several years as the bureau chief. When she writes about attending events intended for foreign media compared to those for Chinese journalists, her writing is sincere, because she was there, and because she understood every word. Her insight into how Western perception of the state of the Internet in China differs from the true situation on the ground is invaluable.
Story is where MacKinnon excels; a few style tweaks would make Consent of the Networked even more accessible for readers. I hope that with the next version of this book or MacKinnon’s next work a stronger editorial process is used; copy and pasted paragraphs that are essentially verbatim in chapter 3 are an unnecessary distraction. If the author or editor anticipated that a reader might pick and choose chapters rather than reading straight through I could understand some paraphrasing in different sections with overlapping themes, but self-quotation in the same chapter looks sloppy. The book’s complex use of language is undergraduate reading level at a minimum, which may appeal to academics looking for a broad overview of the topic, but means the vast majority of MacKinnon’s potential audience isn’t likely to stick with the text.
Luckily for those who might find the book too wordy to merit finishing, in July 2011 MacKinnon delivered a TED talk in Edinburgh at TEDGlobal, touching on many of the central concepts in Consent of the Networked (see video below). She’s clearly investing a good deal of time and energy into spreading the message that those who want the Internet to stay open and sane need to educate themselves and make their voices heard. Otherwise the consent of the networked will be taken for granted and most certainly abused by companies interested in money, and governments interested in power.