On the sixth floor of the MIT Media Lab, Rebecca MacKinnon started the presentation of her new book Consent of the Networked: The World Struggle for Internet Freedom by warning us about the threats around the Internet’s future. Are we going toward democracy or toward its opposite? How do we make sure that the Internet evolves in a democratic way? The Internet, according to Ms. MacKinnon, must not be taken for granted.
Ms. MacKinnon argued that state laws will never provide sufficient protection for the Internet as foreign laws systematically undermine their effects. After mentioning multi-jurisdictional issues, she went on to discuss the more abstract relationship between citizens and government. Companies are increasingly crucial in the Internet’s eco-system. She asked the audience how we can make sure that government actually represents the people when it regulates companies and whether it should regulate at all. The relationship between the State and its citizens appears to have eroded, and its erosion begs the question of what new form regulation of the online realm should take. The Magna Carta and John Locke’s ideas about government and property are no longer a persuasive guide for regulators, who must find inspiration elsewhere.
If the pre-Internet period can be metaphorically represented as a time of scarcity, a desert of ideas, the Internet revolution can instead be represented as a tropical storm, the implications of which we, as inhabitants of the desert, are still unequipped to face and fully understand. According to Ms. MacKinnon, although we are far from knowing the values we will need to promote or the ways in which we will want to promote them, we are aware that something important has changed in our current social structure. She mentioned a few ideas and solutions discussed in her book for implementing openness online: open digital commons, multi-stakeholder Internet governance, development of declarations of the rights of Netizens, the Global Network Initiative which promotes online accountability for businesses, and other efforts of transparency including the Google Transparency Report, as well as forms of dialogue and consultation with users. The ultimate goal, Ms. MacKinnon pointed out, is to preserve liberty online. As the fight for the Internet’s ecology becomes fiercer, we are increasingly responsible for the preservation of our online liberties. Given the number of players and the interests at stake, maintaining the Internet as a free space for online public discussions is and will be a challenge, as the SOPA legislation showed.
Overall, the event was greatly inspirational and reminded us that the Internet is not a given and that we need to act to make sure the Internet becomes what we want it to be.
The event is available online on the Berkman Center’s YouTube channel on the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpUQDeSgp8A.
Elettra Bietti is a LL.M. student at Harvard Law School.