- - Friday, February 3, 2012

By Rebecca MacKinnon
Basic Books, $26.99, 320 pages

In the United States, a country that fosters innovation and upholds freedom, it can be difficult to imagine circumstances in which citizens use the Internet as anything but a platform for productivity via sites like Google, Twitter or Facebook. Within the first chapter of “Consent of the Networked,” author Rebecca MacKinnon shows that for some parts of the world, however, the Internet provides much more. A journalist and former CNN bureau chief in Tokyo and Beijing, Ms. MacKinnon sets out to determine “how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good it can do in the world, and minimize the evil.”

Through stories of revolutionary uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that came about partly through organization and communication via Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, Ms. MacKinnon shows the Internet’s explosive power in the hands of determined political activists.

Ms. MacKinnon’s reported and personal stories about China are most insightful and moving in their detailed demonstration of how far people will go to be able to live freely. (In fact, between the lines, sections of the book read like a manifesto against communism, especially as it plays out online, something Ms. MacKinnon calls “networked authoritarianism.”)

Indeed, Ms. MacKinnon details Google’s complicated relationship with China and sounds relieved and encouraged to point out that their severed relationship is a sign of the increased possibility of a free and open Internet respectful of human rights. However, Ms. MacKinnon observes: “The Chinese Communist Party has created a system that keeps itself in power while engaging its citizens and helping them succeed economically. … [But] the Internet’s pervasive use in China will actually help prolong the Communist Party’s rule of China rather than hasten its demise.”

Ms. MacKinnon’s stories of the effort occurring worldwide as people harness the Internet, often with a political, socioeconomic or religious motivation, are discerning, harrowing and empowering. From Egypt’s record of torturing and jailing bloggers, China’s system of corporate-level censorship and South Korea’s strict requirements for real identification for online users, Ms. MacKinnon repeatedly strikes the appropriate balance between a technological discussion of the Net and the significance of human rights.

Because people are using the Internet for everything from a haven from abusive relationships to a way of communicating against authoritarian rule, she makes a case for the need for a cohesive system of law in cyberworld such as there is in the real world.

Interestingly, Ms. MacKinnon’s research pointedly and consistently shows a two-faced Internet: On one, the politically repressed find freedom; on the other, corporations and governments violate basic privacies. She surmises, “In the Internet age, it is inevitable that corporations and government agencies have access to detailed information about people’s lives. Without transparency and accountability in the use of this information, democracy will be eroded.”

Two-thirds of the book sets up the groundwork and relays examples of the fundamental problems of ensuring the Internet remains a free “place”; the last third describes several possible solutions. Anyone who has heard of Egyptians using Twitter to aid the overthrow of a government but who worries that his identity or privacy may be compromised when using Facebook or Gmail wants to know, as Ms. MacKinnon does, “How do citizens make sure that private agendas and pursuit of profit do not erode consumer choice and even democratic expression?”

The solutions are as multifaceted as the questions. Ms. MacKinnon suggests regulation of the Internet might help but admits that sometimes governments contribute to the problem, so they may not be completely unbiased when confronting the issues. In many of her examples that occur between “netizens” (citizens of the Net) and large corporations (such as Facebook or Google) the latter bears the burden to rise to the occasion, be more transparent and work with governments.

She argues, “[W]e must devise more effective and innovative ways to constrain all forms of digital power within reasonable limits, whether that power is exercised by governments, corporations, or activist hacker networks carrying ideological and religious stripes.”

Ms. MacKinnon mentions personal responsibility in passing - curious, especially given that people hop on the Internet of their own accord, and sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter are completely free of cost to users. She suggests, “The more we actively use the Internet to exercise our rights as citizens and to improve our societies, the harder it will be for governments and corporations to chip away at our freedoms, arguing as they so often do that we do not deserve them, and treating us like reprobates.”

Packed with thorough and impeccable research and persuasive, eye-opening anecdotes from around the world, “Consent of the Networked” should spearhead a robust debate and join the handful of other books that successfully guide the reader through the land mines surrounding responsible use of the Internet.

• Nicole Russell has written for TheAtlantic.com, Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator.

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