Computing Profession

Rebecca Mackinnon Discusses Threats to Internet Freedom: Part 1

Rebecca MacKinnon
Rebecca MacKinnon is a cofounder of Global Voices Online, an international bloggers’ network, and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

In her new book Consent Of The Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, Rebecca MacKinnon–former CNN journalist and now cofounder of Global Voices Online, an international bloggers’ network, and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank–argues that “whether we are simply users of technology, investors in technology companies, employees or executives of Internet-related companies, elected officials, or mid-ranking government bureaucrats, we all have a responsibility … to hold the abusers of digital power to account, along with their facilitators and collaborators. If we do not,” she warns, “when we wake up one morning to discover our freedoms have eroded beyond recognition, we will have only ourselves to blame.”

CACM: Rebecca, what are the biggest obstacles to an open and accessible Internet?

Particularly in democracies, you have people in government who are trying to solve problems–crime on the Internet, copyright violations, child porn, etc.–and they grasp at solutions that often involve censorship and surveillance to control the problem. And that ends up contributing to a less open and free Internet. So one obstacle is just having lawmakers understand that, like in real space, if you’re solving a problem, you need to think of what the unintended consequences might be with the solution. We must make sure we don’t destroy the Internet while trying to solve the problems that exist on the Internet.

Similarly, many companies are building products and platforms and services we find delightful and convenient. But oftentimes these companies aren’t thinking about how their features and policies are going to affect our civil liberties.

People need to be aware the Internet isn’t necessarily necessarily going to stay the way it is today. It depends on whether we fight for our rights on the Internet, just like if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on in your city or your community or your country; if you don’t make some effort to defend your rights, other people may take them away. We need to think of ourselves not just as users of this technology but as citizens of the Internet and pay attention to who is exerting power over us through various devices and networks and platforms, who controls these devices and networks and platforms, and who is making the decisions about what we can and cannot do. And if we don’t like the way this is playing out, we need to push back.

Do you think those politicians and companies care about the freedoms you say we should be fighting for?

When it comes down to what politicians do and don’t care about, I think it all depends on what they think their voters care about. Because that’s ultimately related to whether or not they stay in office. If they only hear from constituents or contributors to their campaigns that they want them to fight crime on the Internet and they’re not hearing from other constituents about their rights and liberties on the Internet, they can easily forget anybody’s concerned about that.

And the way you influence companies is …

 …through your pocketbook. Many of the commodities these Internet companies are selling depend on your trust–and if you don’t trust them, they are going to lose value. Also, there’s a whole segment of people who are investing their pensions in socially responsible investment funds, choosing not to put their money in companies that, say, pollute the environment or exploit workers. Similarly, we shouldn’t be putting our pension dollars in companies that are violating peoples’ freedom of expression and right to privacy and making it harder to have a democratic discourse or manipulating peoples’ access to information.

Which is the larger threat to freedom on the Internet–government or business?

The greatest threat of all is when you have unaccountable government and unaccountable corporations in collusion with each other in an unaccountable way. For example, what most people don’t realize about China is that most of the censorship and surveillance that’s going on is actually being done by companies at the behest of the government.

Part two of this interview will be posted on March 27.

Watch this video for additional remarks by MacKinnon.

Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.

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