Future Tense

Consent of the Networked

How can digital technology be structured and governed to maximize the good and minimize the evil?

Egyptian protests.
Protesters try to break into Egypt state security headquarters in March, 2011

AFP/Getty Images.

On March 5, 2011, protesters stormed the Egyptian state security headquarters. In real time, activists shared their discoveries on Twitter as they moved through a building that had until recently been one of the Mubarak regime’s largest torture facilities.

Videos and photos uploaded to YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook showed a flurry of young men (and a few women) opening doors and cabinets, sifting through piles of shredded paper, pulling out stacks of files, and examining pieces of equipment, including implements of torture.

Some activists found their own files. They were full of wiretap transcripts and reams of printouts of intercepted emails and mobile messages. Clearly, the Egyptian government had sophisticated surveillance technology—purchased from several North American and European companies—at its disposal. It still does.

“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet,” said Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive and a hero of the Egyptian revolution for his role in creating the Facebook group that played a key role in getting the first wave of protesters into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Internet certainly did play a powerful role in bringing down a dictator—but it was leveraged by a committed community of activists who spent the better part of a decade building a movement. It is less clear how helpful the Internet will be when it comes to protecting the Egyptian people’s rights in the post-Mubarak era and in building a new democracy.

If the events of 2011 taught the world anything, it is that although the Internet empowers dissent and activism, it is not a magic tonic that automatically produces democracy.

Even if Egypt manages to build a stable democracy, its people face a problem not yet solved by any of the world’s democracies: How do we make sure that people with power over our digital lives will not abuse it? The challenge for Egypt’s activists—and for anybody who depends on the Internet anywhere—is that building democratic political institutions within their own country is not enough to constrain or prevent the abuse of digital power against them.

Decisions and business deals made by multinational companies, combined with the laws and policies of other governments and international institutions, also play a major role in shaping what Internet and cell phone users can and cannot do with technology, whether their privacy is protected on digital networks, how their online identities are shaped, and with whom their information is shared.

It is time to stop debating whether the Internet is an effective tool for political expression and instead to address the much more urgent question of how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good and minimize the evil.

Ironically, the world’s democracies have no consensus on this question. Americans disagree fiercely over what it means that law enforcement agencies and the National Security Agency can, in the name of fighting crime and terrorism, access our private emails much more easily than they can open our mail or search our physical file cabinets. A high-stakes political fight is now raging in Washington over whether censorship and surveillance are appropriate means to fight online piracy of movies and music. European societies are debating the effectiveness and desirability of censorship, which some politicians promote as a tool to combat a range of ills from child pornography to hate speech. In India—the world’s largest democracy—a government minister recently demanded that social networking companies like Facebook and Google must abide by government demands to delete anti-government material. The Indian government also successfully pressured RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, to allow government access to the devices’ messaging systems.

As the Internet grows ever more intertwined with our lives, citizens’ dependence on it for achieving and sustaining democracy also grows. In our dependence, we have a problem: We understand how power works in the physical world and how to constrain it through legal and political systems. We do not, however, have a clear understanding of how power works in the digital realm and how to constrain the abuse of it by governments or companies (or some insidious combination of the two) in confusing, difficult-to-track ways that cut across national borders, economies, and ideologies.

More than two centuries ago, American colonists demanded and fought for self-determination based on “consent of the governed”—an expectation now shared and demanded by people of all cultures and creeds around the world. Democratic institutions are based on a reality of human nature: that those with power, however benign or even noble their intentions, will do what they can to keep it. Digital power is every bit as likely to be abused as physical power, but is often more insidious because it is often wielded in the background until its results manifest themselves in the offline world.

In the physical world, mechanisms of democratic politics and constitutional law have worked—not perfectly, but still far better than any alternatives—to protect citizens’ rights and hold abusers accountable. But these mechanisms are inadequate for people whose physical lives now depend on digital networks, platforms, and services where sovereignty and power are ill-defined and highly contested.

The reality is that the corporations and governments that build, operate, and govern cyberspace are not being held accountable for their exercise of power over people who use digital networks. They are sovereigns operating without the consent of the networked.

This absence of consent takes place on several levels. Governments are exercising power over people outside their jurisdictions through global Internet companies. When citizens around the world depend on Google, Twitter, and Facebook, legislators and regulators in the world’s largest markets make decisions that ultimately shape global technical standards and business norms. Thus governments are exerting power over the freedoms and rights of people who did not vote for them, who do not live under their jurisdiction, and who have no meaningful way of holding them accountable.

“Governance” functions, once carried out almost entirely by nation-states, are now shared increasingly by private networks and platforms. The lives of people around the world are increasingly shaped by programmers, engineers, and corporate executives for whom nobody ever voted and who are not accountable to the public interest. When we sign up for Web services, social networking platforms, broadband service, or mobile wireless networks, and we click “agree” to the terms of service, we give them false and uninformed consent to operate as they like.

Today the power of Internet platforms and services to shape people’s lives is greater than ever and will only grow. Though some Internet companies are helping to empower people in innovative and exhilarating ways, many are also serving authoritarian dictators by selling censorship and surveillance technologies or by participating in surveillance and censorship of citizens.

Executives of these companies often argue that human rights are neither their concern nor their responsibility: the main obligation of any business, they point out, is to maximize profit and investor returns. But what kind of world are they helping to create, and should that not concern them? In the first half of the 20th century, corporations were forced to consider employees’ safety and health. In the past 50 years, the environmental movement has forced industry to share responsibility for pollution and more recently climate change—though they have not gone nearly far enough. So far, with a few notable exceptions, most Internet and telecommunications companies have failed to accept responsibility—and be held accountable—for the rights of their customers and users.

In the 21st century, many of the most acute political and geopolitical struggles will involve access to and control of information. Contrary to what some people may have hoped and believed, the Internet does not change human nature. People, governments, companies, and all kinds of groups are using the Internet to achieve all kinds of ends, including political ones. Amid all of our excitement over new technologies, our default assumption as citizens must be that governments, powerful corporations seeking market dominance, and various other interest groups will use digital networks to obtain and maintain power whenever the opportunity presents itself.

As with power in the physical world, power in the digital world must be constrained, balanced, and held accountable. The time has come to assert our rights within the digital spaces we now inhabit—just as people around the globe have fought for their rights in the physical spaces once controlled entirely by sovereigns who claimed to have the divine right to rule as they pleased.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as “users” of the Internet and instead act like citizens of the digital networks we inhabit, or “netizens.” If existing institutions and mechanisms are inadequate to constrain the abuse of power across globally interconnected digital networks, political innovation must catch up to technological innovation.

Democracy was never advanced by people asking politely. Building and preserving democracy in the physical world remains a constant struggle. Conceiving and implementing new forms of governance for a globally interconnected digital world—based on the notion of consent of the networked—is not going to be any easier.

Adapted with permission from Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.