graphic: Debbie Menon 9.16.2010

This is a book review from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal which focuses at the heart of the online-freedom issue.  Who has a right to tell us what we can blog, when we can blog or if we can blog at all?  The government?  The private owners of corporate giants such as Facebook or Apple?  Do we have a right to blog free of any censorship, fears or threats?  Did the Egyptian government, in January 2011, have the right to order internet providers to “pull the plug” on net communications for five days?  Do Facebook and Google have the right to sell for profit our personal and private information, as they now do, for use by advertisers, law enforcement and artificial-intelligence techs who need the info for human behavioral studies?  These are questions that can and should be asked.

I’ve interspersed my own comments (bracketed and in italics) between the article’s paragraphs.  —SB

The Wall Street Journal    BOOKSHELF

FEBRUARY 15, 2012

Handmaidens to Censorship:

The threat to online freedom may come from governments, of course, but also from private companies doing the state’s dirty work.  Luke Allnutt reviews “Consent of the Networked.”


With mounting street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government, in January 2011, decided to pull the plug on the Internet and mobile telecommunications *.  It wasn’t difficult.  The authorities reportedly asked the country’s Internet providers, including a joint venture with the U.K.-based Vodafone, to turn off their services.  If the companies didn’t want to break Egyptian law, they had no choice but to comply.  For five days, the Egyptian Internet was virtually blacked out.

[* Here, there was implicit governmental intimidation to shut down freedom of speech.  There has been much talk since the Egyptian riots of the power that technology now wields toward allowing instantaneous organizing of dissenters.  Who should own that power to cut off free speech to both consenters and dissenters alike?  —SB]

In “Consent of the Networked,” Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that it is governments working in collaboration with corporations that represent the greatest threat to Internet freedom.  Internet control, she makes clear, is about more than censorship and filtering.  It is also about shaping narratives and getting private companies to do the state’s dirty work.

Ms. MacKinnon deploys the phrase “digital bonapartism” to describe the policy of strong-arm leaders who use the Internet to seek legitimacy, for instance by crowdsourcing input on new laws or using pro-government bloggers to slur out-of-favor officials.  Such leaders may not block Internet sites outright, but they may well intimidate or threaten bloggers and Internet journalists * “if they push the envelope too far.”  Ms. MacKinnon sees this tendency in Russia and China, although she shows that the Internet in China is more varied and less well policed than is often portrayed.

[* Note that just three months ago, our Department of Homeland Security obtained the right to “monitor” all data that comes from journalists, writers or bloggers.   “Previously established guidelines within the administration say that data could only be collected under authorization set forth by written code, but the new provisions in the NOC’s [National Operations Center] write-up means that any reporter, whether someone along the lines of Walter Cronkite or a budding blogger, can be victimized by the agency.” ( ).  —SB]

Ms. MacKinnon worries about Internet freedom in Western democracies as well.  She cites Sen. Joe Lieberman’s introduction, with Sen. Susan Collins, of a cybersecurity bill in the Senate in 2010 that critics complained would have granted the federal government an emergency Internet “kill switch.”  Sen. Lieberman also drew flak in 2010 for allegedly complaining to when a service run by the company was used by WikiLeaks for its online publication of U.S. diplomatic cables.  Amazon cut off WikiLeaks, * but the company denied that it was influenced by Sen. Lieberman.  Around the same time, PayPal and MasterCard ended relationships with WikiLeaks, and Twitter data related to the group was subpoenaed.  Ms. MacKinnon says that the response to WikiLeaks “highlights a troubling murkiness, opacity, and lack of public accountability in the power relationships between government and Internet-related companies.”

[* Whatever one may believe about WikiLeaks, this would be akin to me self-publishing a book through that the government felt was contrary to their partisan ideology.  The government then would make their displeasure with me known to, PayPal and MasterCard.  Those three private, non-governmental companies would then cut me off.  If they can do it to WikiLeaks, they can do it to anyone.  —SB]


Consent of the Networked

By Rebecca MacKinnon
(Basic, 294 pages, $26.99)

If governments are the malevolent sovereigns seeking to enclose the digital commons, then big tech companies are sometimes the obedient vassals keeping the peasants in line.  Businesses can be roped into doing the censorship work for governments—and supplying states with sophisticated surveillance equipment as well.  Internet companies can use our data in ways beyond our control and without our knowledge * and give up that data to prying government agencies.  Big tech companies—e.g., Internet service providers or social networks—are what Ms. MacKinnon calls the “stewards and handmaidens” of Internet censorship.

[Recently, Yuri Milner, the CEO of Digital Sky Technologies made public his belief that Facebook will eventually become a “basis for artificial intelligence.”  This is due to the fact that “Facebook is the central nexus of social data and the social graph; it is the online personification of personalities, interests, friendships and more.” [ ]  What better way to mimic or create artificial behavior than to monitor the behavior of humans through their online social actions (what we “like,” what we buy, what we listen to or watch or read, our educational levels, how we speak to each other, how open we are, how private we try to be, how radical we are . . .  For a concise and readable history of artificial intelligence, see: .  —SB]

But what happens when those stewards and handmaidens become sovereigns in their own right, the curators of what news we read, what movies we see and what protests we attend?  Ms. MacKinnon is concerned that when closed proprietary systems—such as Facebook or Apple’s App Store—dominate the Web, free speech will suffer.  She highlights Apple, which has been criticized for banning apps it finds objectionable, including a cartoon version of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (featuring some nudity) and an app ridiculing public figures.  There is a danger, Ms. MacKinnon says, that political activists will become “hostage to the arbitrary whims of corporate self-governance.”

This claim cuts to the heart of the debate about the future of the Internet.  Private services like YouTube have every right to choose what content they carry, just as Wal-Mart or an organic knitwear store has every right to be selective about what products it sells.  What concerns advocates of the open Web is that tech giants like Facebook or Google are so colossal that they are more like public utilities; when it comes to the freedom of speech and assembly, they function as town squares * instead of privately owned shopping malls.

[* Recent American elections have utilized to great effect the concept of online town halls, where voters from every nook and cranny of the country can listen in and join in, as long as they have an internet connection.  Here, it’s a tool to be used to any politician’s benefit.  The broader discussion, though, is whether the same politician, once elected, can shut down the town hall discussion if it begins to smell of “those nasty far-right tea partiers,” or likewise, “those nasty far-left socialists,” depending, of course, on what political ideology the winning politician gives allegiance to. SB]

Ms. MacKinnon says that leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has described regulation of the Internet is a moral imperative, “offer a false binary choice between their preferred solutions on the one hand and an anarchic state of nature in cyberspace on the other.”  She’s right.  The problem is that many thinkers on the information-wants-to-be-free side of the debate present the same binary choice, seeing almost any state control of the Internet, or any government attempt to protect intellectual property, or even the attempts of private social networks to get people to log in with their real names, * as affronts to democracy comparable with the worst excesses of repressive regimes.

[* Here is a great example of the needed balance between privacy and security.  On one hand, the idea of logging in with an alias name, address and all other personal info sounds not bad at all.  On the other hand, there are more than a handful of characters out there who would love anonymous online access for evil intent.  The farther right you go politically, the more liberty you find at the expense of security.  The farther left you go, the more control you get at the expense of liberty.  A Barack Obama would seek the most governmental control.  A Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would seek the most corporate, private-interests control.  A Ron Paul would seek the least governmental or corporate control and the most personal liberty.  —SB]

Luckily, Ms. MacKinnon’s analysis is more nuanced and balanced than that, and “Consent of the Networked” is an excellent survey of the Internet’s major fault lines.  To protect online freedom, she favors grass-roots movements of empowered users pushing back against corporations.  She argues that companies must be convinced, through multi-stakeholder efforts like the Global Network Initiative, “that respecting and protecting their users’ universally recognized human rights is in their long-term commercial self-interest.”

Advocating more activism and more pressure on companies might not sound particularly startling, but already such tactics seem to be bearing fruit.  A couple of months ago, after pressure from nongovernmental agencies, Western companies stopped building a surveillance system for the Syrian regime *.  In the tech industry, the idea of corporate social responsibility is still fairly new.  But a look at the successes achieved by the environmental movement shows that pressuring companies and raising consumer awareness make a lot of sense.

* [2.16.2012 UPDATE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been responsible, under his rule, for the deaths of more than 7,400 of his people.  The United Nations (UN), just hours ago, condemned Assad for human rights violations and called for him to step down.  And here are “Western companies” having to be pressured to stop “building a surveillance system for the Syrian regime.”  Not exactly social responsibility.  —SB]

Mr. Allnutt writes about digital topics for the Tangled Web blog of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

[For two recent and outstanding books on the myriad of relevant issues revolving around the internet, see:  Brockman, John, ed.  Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?:  The Net’s Impact on our Minds and Future.  Harper/Perennial, 2011, and:  Levy, Steven.  In The Plex:  How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.  Simon & Schuster, 2011.  For insight into the present and future of artificial intelligence, see:  Kurzweil, Ray.  The Age Of Spiritual Machines:  When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence.  1999.  Penguin, 2000.  —SB]