“The internet is a geopolitical theatre”

Questions to Rebecca MacKinnon is a thought-leader on human rights online.

Rebecca MacKinnon is a thought-leader on human rights online. Her book The Consent of the Network (Basic Books 2012) discusses who has the power over the network and pointed to some of the risks that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on this summer. Netopia met her for a chat.

Per Strömbäck: Is freedom the same as absence of government regulation?

Rebecca MacKinnon: It’s not that simple. In the physical world we have governments for a reason. Without them, we get what Hobbes calls a “state of nature”, where the strong can do what they want. That’s not good for minorities, that’s usually not good for women and children. There is the same need for governance online based on rights and accountability, and it must rely on the consent of the governed.

There is a challenge in how power on the internet flows differently. The nation-state relies on a physical community, but the online geographic borders are not well defined. There are other communities online, the based on interests or common denominators like gender or profession.
When regulation is changed, it tends to be by nations, but often those who make the laws don’t necessarily understand the technology and they can be the focus of lobbying or even corruption. The challenge is how to prevent the abuse of power.

PS: Do we need new international institutions?

RMK: Well, there’s ICANN, that deals with domain names and IETF that looks after standards and of course the United Nations which existed long before the internet, but not all its members are democracies. There is not going to be a single global institution that will fix this.

A number of scholars have looked into this, for example Laura DeNardis who has a book on internet governance coming, so I don’t mean to take the credit for these ideas. We do need global institutions, but they will be different for different purposes; one may deal with cybersecurity, one with domain names, one with technical standards.

It’s going to be messy, but the goal is to constrain power, prevent abuse and introduce accountability. In America, we like to talk about checks and balances. It’s to prevent the process being captured by particular interests. So it’s not one grand institution, rather citizens being engaged, people from different sectors and more platforms. And it’s never going to end.

You use words like “abuse of power” and talk about conflicting interests, this is very different from how the digital revolution is often discussed; as a blessing with no downsides.

Well, maybe that’s my original background in political science showing through. The internet is a geopolitical theatre. Think about the language used by the Chinese government in relation to the internet, it’s a national security language. A security breach is not only a breach in the network by a hacker for example but also if the “wrong” content leaks. There is a growing number of governments and countries who are trying to advance their interests. For America, the “open internet” ideology serves its political interests, just as long as no-one asks the surveillance question.

PS: In other areas of society, government institutions serve as those checks and balances on businesses. Is that the answer also for the internet?

RMK: Sometimes it’s the government causing the problem! This is the problem that the Global Network Initiative, which I am involved with, is trying to address. There are many things that companies should be held accountable for, but national law can conflict with international human rights law. If companies don’t comply with national law they can be thrown out or their employees go to jail, those are not good human rights outcomes. Should not Western companies engage in such countries? That means the Chinese will, is that better? But what companies can do is work out different things to respect people’s rights, they can maximize transparency to their users so they are aware that communication can be picked up by government agents. Companies can push back against government requests, in many cases these requests are informal, even illegal in that country.

Cybersecurity seems to put a lot of responsibility on the individual user, but in many cases the internet services are niche monopolies or monocultures which makes it difficult to exercise consumer power.

Yes, there is a lack of choice and a growing demand for alternatives. Snapchat is an example of that, the service where messages are set to delete themselves after a few seconds. So this will, hopefully, develop with a more informed public.

I lived in China for many years. People develop skills for avoiding the surveillance. There are things people don’t do online. So maybe, if you want to have a private conversation: go camping in the woods, rather than talk about it online.

That’s such a dire prospect for the internet that was supposed to give us all this freedom and opportunity!

Well the good news is the internet also brought a lot of empowerment. The world wide web index shows that some of the best development is happening in democracies. There are many such efforts, on national level, on global level. But it’s going to be messy. It’s not going to get fixed.

This is not a bug that there is a patch for that can be downloaded and installed. It’s like democracy, it’s an on-going process.