Is the Internet due for a “Magna Carta moment?”
That is a question being posed by Rebecca MacKinnon, an Internet scholar at the New America Foundation, who argues that private corporations are exerting excessive power over the Internet and should have that power checked. Just as the English barons crafted the original Magna Carta in 1215 to constrain the power of the unpopular King John, she says, Internet users should organize and push back against the companies.
“The sovereigns of the Internet are acting like they have a divine right to govern,” said Ms. MacKinnon, whose book, ”Consent of the Networked,” will be published by Basic Books in January 2012. “They are in complete denial that there is something horrible they would ever do.” She gave a preview of her book at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh on Tuesday morning and in an interview.
The control that companies exert over the Internet in areas ranging from banking to freedom of speech has raised increasing levels of concern, especially in the wake of the controversial WikiLeaks release of State Department cables last year. Several companies constrained WikiLeaks, including Amazon, which kicked WikiLeaks off its servers after pressure from American lawmakers; PayPal, which suspended WikiLeaks’ account; and credit card companies, which refused to take donations for it.
Governments at this point rarely act directly to constrain the Internet; instead, their policies are mediated through privately owned and operated services, Ms. MacKinnon said. This is true of China, which maintains the famed Great Firewall that blocks sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in favor of local services. But domestically, every year the Chinese government gives out “China Internet Self-Discipline Awards” to honor companies that voluntarily cooperate with its censorship policies. Baidu, which had been Google’s rival in China before the search giant redirected China users to its uncensored Hong Kong site in 2010, has been among the honorees.
One company that has drawn attention is Apple, whose market power allows its review process for iPhone applications to become a de facto censor in many countries. In China, the company has restricted access to Dalai Lama-related iPhone applications, and earlier this year it removed a Palestinian protest iPhone application called ThirdIntifada in response to the Israeli government’s complaints. Even in the United States, Apple banned an iPhone app from a political cartoonist in 2009 because it ridiculed public figures, a decision that was reversed after the cartoonist won a Pulitzer Prize.
Although “we don’t always do it very well,” people generally know how to hold governments accountable, particularly in a democracy, said Ms. MacKinnon. However, it’s still unclear how users can push back against private transnational companies on the Internet. The solution is likely not for Congress or other lawmakers to pass regulations alone, she said. ”It’s going to require innovation that is not only going to need to focus on politics, on geopolitics, but is also going to need to deal with questions of business management, investor behavior and consumer choice,” she said.
Companies should start thinking of their users more as constituents who have a voice in the policy making, she said. Also, good corporate governance policies, like the ones that have become standard for clothing manufacturing companies, could become more widespread. Google, for example, regularly releases a transparency report, which lists how many requests for information it receives from each government. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have helped develop a code of conduct around Internet freedom through the Global Network Initiative. However, Twitter and Facebook have not joined in, limiting the impact of the code.
Ms. MacKinnon predicts that no matter what it will ultimately look like, the process of pushing back on Internet companies is likely to take sustained decades-long political effort, similar to those movements that created environmental and child-labor laws. What is important right now is to open the conversation, she said. She threw out a question on stage: “How can we hold power accountable on the Internet?”