Many social uprisings in emerging countries have gained momentum via the internet. From the first, in Tunisia in 2002, to the 2011 ouster of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, an internet revolution has provided a platform for those without a voice. The power of the web to change history and turn political strife to personal freedom is documented with great detail in Consent of the Networked. But the internet’s power can also spread evil.
Author Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalist and former CNN bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo, uses China as one example. In possibly the best chapter in the book, the author details how Chinese internet crusaders are using the web to fight against, among other things, injustice within the legal system. “The internet enables ordinary Chinese people to speak truth to power and pursue justice in unprecedented ways,” writes MacKinnon. “At the same time, Chinese internet users have a manipulated and distorted view of their own country as well as the broader world.”
It is not only Communist-controlled countries that exert censorship and restrictions upon their people’s internet use. Both large corporations, such as Facebook (or “Facebookistan,” as she refers to it) and Google (“Googledom”), 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,” she writes.
These digital kingdoms need rules and MacKinnon makes a well-argued case for the need for a cohesive system of law within the cyberworld. In order to completely harness the benefits of the internet’s power, we must all abide by a certain set of moral, ethical and enforceable guidelines. This, she says, will help make sure that private agendas and the pursuit of profit do not erode consumer choice, public freedom and democratic expression.
Personal responsibility is another side of the argument. However, it is one that MacKinnon rarely mentions within the book.