Consent of the Networked: Interview with Rebecca MacKinnon

//CGCS Media Wire presents a conversation with media scholar Rebecca MacKinnon during her recent visit to the Annenberg School for Communication. We discuss her recent book Consent of the Networked, where she wants to go next with her research, and finally the state of human rights and privacy online.

//Written by CGCS Media Wire editor Corey H. Abramson

This past Monday, CGCS Media Wire got a chance to sit down with Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of citizen media network Global Voices and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, to discuss her bookConsent of the Networked and her upcoming research projects on transnational policy surrounding Information Communications Technologies.

For her 2011 book, MacKinnon pulls from years of experience at places like Global Voices, CNN and the New America Foundation to examine the often overlooked roles private telecommunications companies play in the lives of online citizens, the “netizens” as MacKinnon calls this networked digital population. This occurs both through the natural power that online behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Twitter wield, as well as through ‘terms of service’ agreements that users must agree to in order to participate. In exchange for services and access to ICT networks, MacKinnon explains, we frequently give up rights to various forms of expression and privacy.

Back-end regulations and end-user agreements can function as “a private governance” of sorts, defining what rights users waive when signing up and in what ways their data may or may not be used. Moreover, as MacKinnon explained, these rules help to define the ways we understand the underlying functions of the internet which in turn dictate whats coming next.

She writes in Consent that the average netizen frequently lacks an “understanding of how various kinds of transnational digital platforms and the organizations that build them derive and wield their power; to whom, if anyone, they are [held] accountable; and how their power can best be constrained in a way that does minimal harm and maximum good.”

The Global Network Initiative & A New Transnational Human Rights Audit

She explains that in addition to every country having it’s own legal and political system, “almost every internet platform, equipment vendor and telecommunications company is [also] different, in terms of its technologies and business models.”  This came to light in 2006 when web giants Yahoo, Microsoft and Google scrambled to sit down with human rights groups, socially responsible investors and academics to avoid congressional backlash to set up “a multi-stakeholder process focused on free expression and privacy” which would be come known as the Global Network Initiative.

MacKinnon continues to sit as a board member on the Global Network Initiative, trying to bridge the gap between ICT companies and governments in the hopes of protecting human rights, freedoms of expression and privacy. The GNI currently audits groups (such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Committee to Protect Journalists, Google, Microsoft, Human Rights Watch, The Index on Censorship, our friends at CIS-India.org and to a smaller extent, Facebook) for compliance with “domestic laws and policies in ways that may conflict with the internationally recognized human rights of freedom of expression and privacy.”

This first step, bridging the gap between domestic policy as well as engineering, and internationally agreed upon rights and values is a big one, but not the whole picture. MacKinnon likens this to the restrictions of the Magna Carta when she says, “We know what we do not want, but not necessarily know where to go from here.”

While the GNI has certainly done its part in years past, and continues to do so (see their most recent 2011 Annual Report here), MacKinnon wishes to expand her work by establishing a “method for ranking global ICT companies on internet-based, universal freedoms.” These audits would ideally provide socially responsible investors with direction and guidance, leading to a more sound, free and open internet with a well informed, participatory user base.

Taking things a step further than GNI, MacKinnon’s new global audit would “do something that places a company’s reputation on the line” and functions as less of a “fig leaf” approach.

When asked about the need for such an index, MacKinnon discussed just how dangerous the web can be “without informed choices” – for both investors and internet users in general. The idea is that by providing investors with a ranking (much like the IOC and CPJ do), companies will be more likely to  promote a more open web through transparent policies and platform engineering.

Moving Forward

In the months ahead, MacKinnon hopes to spend time at CGCS working with researchers, scholars and students to frame her global ICT audit. You can find more information on MacKinnon’s book at the official website, as well as her other projects at Global Voices, the Global Network Initiative, and The New America Foundation.

// Corey H. Abramson sits as the current Media and Policy Fellow, working as an intern for the Center for Global Communication Studies at The Annenberg School for Communication. His main areas of interest are ‘new media’ literacy, digital nativity, internet policies on freedoms of expression & speech, and privacy.

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