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Q&A: Rebecca MacKinnon on the Brave New World of the Web

Internet scholar and advocate Rebecca MacKinnon talks SOPA/PIPA, Twitter censorship, and whether we're in danger of being "entertained to death."

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 11:03 PM EST

Rebecca MacKinnon first began to notice the transformative power of the internet as a journalist for CNN in Beijing and Tokyo in the late '90s and early aughts. Then, as a scholar at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, she began to take a closer look at the trends she'd spotted in the field, and realized that the rise of the internet has major consequences not just for journalism, but for geopolitics. Her just-released book on politics and power in the internet age, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, couldn't have come at a better time. Fresh off the SOPA/PIPA battle, Americans may be starting to see the web in a newly political light. MacKinnon chatted with us about the aftermath of that fight, the recent "Twitter censorship" scandal, and whether we're in danger of being "entertained to death."

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Mother Jones: Let's start with SOPA/PIPA. The narrative so far has been that the Internet beat Big Hollywood and Big Brother, but it seems a bit more complicated. Could this be a moment where people become aware of the Internet as a political terrain in and of itself, rather than just a battleground for other issues?

Rebecca MacKinnon: I think this has the potential to be a watershed moment, but it's still unclear. This SOPA/PIPA movement was such a convergence of different factors, where the interests of the Internet companies and the human rights groups and the civil liberties groups and Internet users and a lot of international actors were kind of aligned, so it was one of those moments where it was really easy to have a successful movement. But there are a lot of other issues where they aren't so aligned. With privacy issues, for instance, or, say, net neutrality, where different companies have different interests depending on what their product or service is and where they fit in the whole chain of information flows. The other thing about the SOPA/PIPA movement is that you had a convergence of grassroots groups on both the left and right-wing sides. You had the tea partiers, the progressives, left-wing people, libertarians—everyone was together on this. And there are other issues—say, when it comes to the Patriot Act or surveillance—where it gets much more ideological and people are much more divided.

MJ: What do you think comes next?

RM: The force and the unity of what happened around SOPA/PIPA was unusual and will be hard to duplicate, but I think it really did highlight to people how much these laws being passed in Washington do actually affect what we can do with the Internet, what we can do with our technologies, and how that affects our daily lives…I don't think we can just assume that now everybody's just awake and it's a new era and we can just sit back and cruise, but people are much more aware now than they were just a year ago that the Internet is a contested space and we have to be aware of how people are trying to shape it, be they companies or governments, or other actors, and we need to pay attention and get engaged and involved. That's quite striking. The battle's not won, but it's a huge step forward…and I know a number of groups who work on freedom of expression and freedom of speech issues and internet openness issues are hoping to keep pushing on these issues and keep galvanizing people.

MJ: With SOPA, a lot of people were worked up about government censorship, that kind of 1984 blacking-out-your-internet kind of thing. But a lot of the really worrisome stuff is more subtle, where there's no specter of Big Brother coming to take away your internet but you end up losing access and freedoms and so on.

RM: When you go to China, you talk to a lot of middle class people who aren't very political—because most people in most countries aren't very political unless they get riled up about something—and people are like, all these Americans are going on about how unfree we are, and how repressive our country is, but I can do all this stuff on the internet! I'm doing this, that, and the other, I feel free! I don't feel oppressed! What are these people talking about? These Americans are just anti-Chinese, they're just making stuff up. Because from their experience, they don't feel so unfree. This is why I called the Chinese model "networked authoritarianism," because people do have more give-and-take with the government, they have more freedom than they used to, but it still has limits.

I think in democracies we're kind of socialized to assume that all the authoritarian countries will eventually evolve and become more like the democracies, and that the Internet will make that more likely, but another possibility is that the authoritarian countries become more like democracies in terms of more public discourse and freewheeling space on the Internet, but it meets in the middle with democracies becoming less free and more manipulated, so we all just become more the same.

MJ: It's easier to mobilize against that direct oppression, though, than against the subtler kinds—how do you deal with that?

RM: Yes, it's much easier to mobilize against that kind of Orwellian thing than it is against Huxley's sort of, everybody's entertained to death, where everything is so entertaining and so convenient, and everybody's so occupied that they don't really notice or realize what has been constrained, and they're not aware of the people who are being silenced. And that's the most insidious...The way I think liberties get eroded is not that all of a sudden you become an Orwellian state, but gradually it becomes harder for people with unpopular views to speak out without being in danger, be it from the state or just from the majority of the people who don't like them. It becomes more risky for at-risk people to express themselves; it becomes more difficult for people to express themselves. You have this erosion at the edges and you need to be looking at the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak.

Can the woman who's fleeing her abusive spouse have a space to speak out, and to gather support without being hounded? Can people still speak out against a law that they want to change without being so threatened that they can't even speak? Those are sort of the questions we need to be asking when we're asking how our internet services and platforms are shaped. Can the nonprofit activist group that's trying to get their videos out—if they can't post them, for whatever reason, on Google's platform, can they still get them out? Can they get their message out, or will the services used to access the Internet discriminate so much in favor of some services over others that it'll be hard for it to gain a foothold? So it's the subtle things I think we need to be looking at a lot of times rather than, oh, all of a sudden we're going to turn into China. We're not going to turn into China, but there are a lot of things that could take us in that direction ever so subtly, and over time that adds up.

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