Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rebecca MacKinnon: Consent of the Networked

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The internet is really really complicated. I know about things like servers and WYSIWYG and basic HTML and even what web 2.0 means. I know that there's dial up and broadband and ethernet cables and that sometimes you need cables and sometimes you don't, usually depending on whether you have a wireless router. I know what mesh internet is and I have heard fancy terms like DPI, net neutrality, and I even know the fancy term creative commons. But it turns out that I a) don't know what most of the fancy things mean and b) only have a very surface understanding of the basic things. And chances are, unless you're a super techy person, you are kind of like me (no offense).

Rebecca MacKinnon's "Consent of the Networked" is the book for you (you being the nontechy normal person, no offense again to the techy people whom I just insinuated weren't normal...) if you want to try to make sense of these things, or even care about these things a tiny bit. Notable, though, is that, though published in 2012 and written primarily in 2011, the book is out of date. The tech world moves fast. "Consent of the Networked" is best read as background, and it's important background. For instance, the book was published before the revelations of the full extent of the NSA spying on people. NSA was spying on people long before Edward Snowden leaked what he leaked, and some of that information had come to light- it's in the book. And right after I finished reading "Consent of the Networked," an important case was decided about net neutrality that will influence how we use the internet. (MacKinnon is great on net neutrality.)

MacKinnon starts with the premise that we must value the internet and all related technology as part of the digital commons and ensure that "the power of citizens on the Internet is not ultimately overcome by the power of corporations and governments." Citizens, corporations and governments all have stakes in the internet and varying agendas. MacKinnon hopes that we can come to see the users, makers, owners, etc (some of which overlap) as a civil society, ala Alexis de Tocqueville. MacKinnon hopes for "active involvement by citizens in community life: people from all social strata and professions taking personal responsibility for the safety and well-being of their communities, pushing back against perceived infringements of their rights, and sharing ideas and forming associations to solve problems and improve life for everybody." This involves governments and corporations rethinking their traditional roles, with the help of citizen/activists.

This is increasingly important (and complicated) as we spend more and more of our time online and increasingly have influence and are influenced but what we see/hear/learn/create online. The uprisings and revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are frequently cited as examples of places where revolution could not or would not have happened without free access to the internet and proof positive that the internet is indeed free. It's not that simple, though: the movements didn't spring immaculately from the internet- rather, the internet was a tool. Further, the internet is not inherently free. The internet can simultaneously serve as a tool of repression and control and liberation at the same time. MacKinnon walks through some current examples (China, Egypt, the US), some initiatives to keep the process democratic, some things that don't really work (like moving control into the UN) and some potential solutions. It's complicated, and even an expert like MacKinnon doesn't have all of the answers, but she sure has a lot to teach.