While the Internet may aid the spread of democracy, democracy doesn't necessarily mean a free and open Internet. In her new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, Rebecca MacKinnon, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and co-founder of Global Voices, a citizen media network, investigates the corrosion of civil liberties by the governments and corporations that control the digital world.
"The critical question is: How do we ensure that the Internet develops in a way that is compatible with democracy?" MacKinnon tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.
Despite the recent uprisings in the Middle East, MacKinnon points out, those countries have a long way to go to achieve the openness required of a democratic society. For instance, although the Egyptian government stopped censoring the Internet after Mubarak stepped down, activists still assume all their electronic communications are being monitored.
"People feel that they have to be very careful about what they're saying online and assume the military government might do something with it," says MacKinnon.
In Tunisia, the democratically elected government has actually reinstated censorship of the Internet. The censorship is not as broad as before, but sites that are considered pornographic or inflammatory are still restricted. Citizens have protested, but conservatives in parliament maintain that public morals must be enforced.
"There's a huge debate going on about ... what is the appropriate role of censorship and also surveillance [in a democratic society]," MacKinnon says.
The problem, according to MacKinnon, is that the Internet is not a "magic freedom juice," as some people seem to believe. "The Internet is an empowering force for people who are protesting against the abuse of power. It's less clear how useful the Internet is going to be [at] building a stable new democracy or improving existing democracy," she says.
These questions apply strongly to the West as well. Internet behemoths — "sovereigns of cyberspace," in MacKinnon's words — are attempting to wrest control over the Net.
"The problem with a lot of these companies is that they're making decisions based primarily on commercial factors. And sometimes these decisions are not made with sufficient attention to how they're going to affect the most vulnerable users," MacKinnon says.
As an example, she points to Facebook's policy requiring people to use their real names. "That's fine if you're a teenager in Palo Alto, or if you're the majority of users — but for people who are political activists in an oppressive regime, that's much more problematic," she says.
Still, MacKinnon admits that these are tangled issues to resolve. Facebook's identity policy, for instance, might prevent such abuses as online harassment or even terrorist activity. Internet companies should decide how to govern their services in a process of negotiation with their users, she says.
Nevertheless, MacKinnon argues, the companies should follow the example of America's Founding Fathers in trying to avoid a "tyranny of the majority." Those with unpopular opinions still need to be protected.
"I think the [companies] that are going to be the most successful in the long run and really gain their users' trust are going to be the ones who are listening not only to the majority of users but also the most vulnerable people," MacKinnon says.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This time last year, no one was getting Facebook in Egypt. The government of Hosni Mubarak had shut down the Internet to quell growing protests. A year later, Mubarak is gone. But the new government still seems to be using high-tech controls to monitor its citizens.
To talk more about Egypt and other places, we're joined by Rebecca MacKinnon. She's a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the book "Consent of the Networked."
Welcome to the program.
REBECCA MACKINNON: Thank you. It's great to be here.
MONTAGNE: How much control does the government have over Egyptians these days?
MACKINNON: Well, as far as the Internet is concerned, the Egyptian government did stop censoring the Internet after Mubarak stepped down, but activists assume that their electronic communications are all being monitored. After Mubarak stepped down, activists were actually able to see some of the files that had been kept on them and found that there were copious records of all their emails, cell phone text messages, their Skype conversations, and that the government was using very sophisticated technology to monitor everything that they were doing and saying online. And it's assumed that that technology is still in use. The military transitional government has been arresting bloggers, raiding the offices of non-profit organizations. People feel that they have to be very careful about what they're saying online and assume the military government might do something with it.
MONTAGNE: Let's turn to Tunisia. It was first noticed that the Internet was playing a rather huge role in bringing people out into the street. There's a democratically-elected government there now, but it has, maybe surprisingly to many, re-imposed Internet controls.
MACKINNON: That's right. As of the middle of last year, the government decided to re-impose censorship, not as broadly as before, but on sites that are considered pornographic and inflammatory. And there are a lot of citizens who are protesting this, particularly the activists who were so involved with bringing down the last government, but there are a lot of conservatives in parliament who feel that the Internet can't be completely free, that public morals need be enforced and so on. So there's a huge debate going on about how - in a democratic society, what is the appropriate role of censorship and also surveillance.
MONTAGNE: You write in your book that people do, though, sometimes think that the Internet just brings freedom and revolution, just like that. And in your words, it does not offer magic freedom juice.
MACKINNON: Yeah, that's right. I mean the Internet is an empowering force for people who are protesting against the abuse of power. It's less clear how useful the Internet is going to be building a stable new democracy or in improving existing democracies.
I think the critical question is: How do we ensure that the Internet develops in a way that is compatible with democracy, that continues to enable dissent and organizing against the abuse of power?
MONTAGNE: I do think a lot of people think of Internet companies as being the champions of Internet freedom. But you write the reverse, that many of these companies are tending to wield a lot of power over what goes on.
MACKINNON: That's right. I talk about Internet companies as the sovereigns of cyberspace. The problem with a lot of these companies is that they're making decisions based primarily on commercial factors. And sometimes these decisions are not made with sufficient attention to how they're going to affect the most vulnerable users.
So you take the way that Facebook has handled its identity policies. Facebook requires that people use their real name. That's fine if you're a teenager in Palo Alto or if you're the majority of users - but for people who are political activists in an oppressive regime, that's much more problematic.
MONTAGNE: Although that particular example shows how complicated this is, because to have a policy where people have to identify themselves online may be very helpful, because anonymity, as we know, has bred all kinds of issues - from abuse of other individuals online to potentially something far more even nefarious than that.
MACKINNON: Well, that's absolutely true. And this is why these issues are so difficult. These companies need to figure out how they're going to govern their services themselves, kind of in negotiation in a way, with their users.
MONTAGNE: But I think the ones that are going to be the most successful in the long run and really gain their users' trust are going to be the ones who are listening not only to the majority of users but also the most vulnerable people. Because you know, as we know just from our own democracy, the founding fathers, when they set up our institutions, were very concerned about something called the tyranny of the majority. And if you set up the system so it's just fine for the majority but it's not protecting the deviants, so-called, or the people who are more outlying, how you protect those people's right to exist.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Her new book is "Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom."
Thanks very much for joining us.
MACKINNON: Thank you. Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.