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Cited — A review of Consent of the Networked

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon

I have owned this book for more than a year, and now that I have finally read it I have to say it was pretty boring. Wait! I am not saying it is a bad book, not by any means! Overall it is excellent and a must read for anyone interested in “internet theory”. The reason it might come off as boring is that it is one of the most cited books on internet freedom. In my last year of reading I have read so many citations of MacKinnon’s work that there was barely anything left! That says a lot about the importance of this book (whether you agree with its premise or not).

Not everything was old news to me, but with the Snowden leaks I feel like this book needs an update soon. The core of the book can be summed up an early quote:

we cannot understand how the Internet is used unless we first understand the ways in which the Internet itself has become a highly contested political space.

MacKinnon demonstrates how the internet is politicized in a number of different spheres including free speech and censorship, civil rights, surveillance, etc. She states:

political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.

That is an important perspective, one that I have came to independently as outlined in my essay on information-centric political philosophy. Although most of the book documents how governments, corporations, the public and activists use the internet, her final chapter outlines what needs to be done politically.

She illustrates the internet as being dominated by two powers: government and corporate. MacKinnon espoused the need for a third actor, a “digital commons” where individuals and activists can operate freely, without the influence of “digital sovereigns.” She quotes Eliot Noss, CEO of Tucows:

if you’re talking about the Internet, nations and nation states are just actors at the table, not predominant.

This does not mean she is pining for a UN-style internet government. Quite the opposite actually. MacKinnon argues against a UN-led organization and is looking for a multi-stakeholder organization including representatives from government, corporations, civil liberties groups and the public at the table. And the table is an important one. These sovereigns are not just offering another product:

Unlike companies that produce sportswear or toothpaste, the value proposition of Internet-related companies relates directly to the empowerment of citizens.

She spends a lot of time talking about social media. One interviewee argues that Facebook has become a public square of the internet. Facebook!? What a shame. Why can’t the “Internet” be the “public square” of the Internet?

A few times I found that MacKinnon did not give very clear definitions of open source, sharing economy and digital commons, which she tended to conflate (cf. loc 541). Furthermore, she doesn’t really talk about the non-financial costs of using “free” (ie. gratis rather than libré) web platforms for activism. Though, we have other authors that cover that particular topic.

Furthermore, there is a lot of talk about “social justice” and working to “maximize the chances that [internet] businesses will genuinely improve the world”. Her anti-corporatism goes a bit far for me. She says that the “point of activism is to reach, convince, and engage the largest number of people” to which my inner-cynic says: “and not to actually provide solutions?!”

A final criticism is to ask if this book is really about the internet at all. It certainly is about free speech and censorship, surveillance and corporate exploitation of private information. I agree that “People need to stop thinking of themselves as passive ‘users’ and ‘customers,’ and start acting like citizens” but it does not mean we need the new classification of “netizen.” Discourse between citizens should be protected whether it is “digital” or not. Still, outlining how digital discourse is particularly vulnerable is an important contribution, and I applaud her wish to build “a more citizen-centric and citizen-driven information environment.”