Private companies profit from govt censorship-WSJ
February 18, 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.”
Wall Street Journal: February 15, 2012
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.
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Luckily, Mr. 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.
Mr. Allnutt writes about digital topics for the Tangled Web blog of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.