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Book Review: Consent of the Networked

Rebecca MacKinnon's new book is an antidote to giddy promises that the Internet will set you free.

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 6:17 PM PST

Unlike many Internet freedom advocates with a more anarchist or libertarian bent, MacKinnon doesn't argue the Internet should be ungoverned, but that it needs to be governed better. Though governance structures exist at a global level, they're largely ad hoc and skewed towards Western interests; ICANN, which runs the world's domain name system (DNS), holds an astonishing amount of power almost by default. The only way to avoid capture by oppressive regimes and self-interested companies, MacKinnon suggests, is for ordinary Internet users to get involved, and in the final chapter, she calls for us to build a "netizen-centric Internet."

Yet it's not entirely clear what that might look like. While the ideas she offers—things like demanding increased corporate social responsibility and offering advice to companies on how to make their services more appropriate for different needs— are by no means radical, many of them still seem like a long shot. MacKinnon repeatedly refers to the labor and environmental movements, suggesting that users of the Internet should emulate those activists in uniting to demand corporate responsibility—but has either of those movements really succeeded in holding corporate power accountable? Corporate abuses have often simply moved overseas in response to national-level campaigns, and today's multinationals are larger and more powerful than ever; despite occasional bursts of criticism when new privacy settings are announced or policy positions changed, the power of Internet companies doesn't seem likely to diminish anytime soon. It's telling that Lawrence Lessig, one of the web's first and most prominent scholars and champions, has recently turned his full attention towards combatting the outsized political power of corporations, both web-based and not.

Moreover, the Internet presents unique challenges in that its users are not only the consumers of services and content, but also the producers and even the product; should Internet activism look like a labor movement, consumer rights group, shareholders’ meeting, or something else entirely? Perhaps all of the above: MacKinnon describes the diverse array of communities and actors are already working to defend freedom online, from established organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to political parties like Sweden's Pirate Party, which won two seats in the European Parliament in 2009, to unaffiliated actors like the "hacktivist" collective Anonymous, which recently made headlines for taking down the FBI's website in response to the shutdown of the file-sharing site Megaupload.

To MacKinnon's credit, she acknowledges the many challenges that lie ahead, noting that the path to a freer, more democratic Internet will be messy, uncertain, and filled with trial-and-error. In any case, the book's intention isn't to offer up a set of neat solutions, but to spur all of us to pay more attention to the threats lurking beneath the web's shiny baubles, and to exhort us to take a more active role in claiming and defending our digital power, rights, and freedoms. In that, Consent of the Networked succeeds admirably; it should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of the web—that is, for all of us.

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