Top positive review
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an excellent overview of the ideas and forces shaping Internet policy debates globally
on January 25, 2012
MacKinnon's book is well-researched exploration of the forces driving Internet developments and policy across the globe today. She serves up an outstanding history of recent global protest movements and social revolutions and explores the role that Internet technologies and digital networks played in those efforts. In particular, her coverage of China and the Net is outstanding. She also surveys some of the recent policy fights here and abroad over issues such as online privacy, Net neutrality regulation, free speech matters, and the copyright wars. It is certainly worth reading and will go down as one of the most important Internet policy books of 2012.
Her book is an attempt to take the Net freedom movement to the next level; to formalize it and to put in place a set of governance principles that will help us hold the "sovereigns of cyberspace" more accountable. Many of her proposals are quite sensible. But my primary problem with MacKinnon's book lies in her use of the term "digital sovereigns" or "sovereigns of cyberspace" and the loose definition of "sovereignty" that pervades the narrative. She too often blurs and equates private power and political power, and she sometimes leads us to believe that the problem of the dealing with the mythical nation-states of "Facebookistan" and "Googledom" is somehow on par with the problem of dealing with actual sovereign power -- government power -- over digital networks, online speech, and the world's Netizenry.
But MacKinnon has many other ideas about Net governance in the book that are less controversial and entirely sensible. She wants to "expand the technical commons" by building and distributing more tools to help activists and make organizations more transparent and accountable. These would include circumvention and anonymization tools, software and programs that allow both greater data security and portability, and devices and network systems to expand the range of communication and participation, especially in more repressed countries. She would also like to see neitzens "devise more systematic and effective strategies for organizing, lobbying, and collective bargaining with the companies whose service we depend upon -- to minimize the chances that terms of service, design choices, technical decisions, or market entry strategies could put people at risk or result in infringement of their rights." This also makes sense as part of a broader push for improved corporate social responsibility.
Regarding law, she takes a mixed view. She says: "There is a need for regulation and legislation based on solid data and research (as opposed to whatever gets handed to legislative staffers by lobbyists) as well as consultation with a genuinely broad cross-section of people and groups affected by the problem the legislation seeks to solve, along with those likely to be affected by the proposed solutions." Of course, that's a fairly ambiguous standard that could open the door to excessive political meddling with the Net if we're not careful. Overall, though, she acknowledges how regulation so often lags far behind innovation. "A broader and more intractable problem with regulating technology companies is that legislation appears much too late in corporate innovation and business cycles," she rightly notes.
MacKinnon's book will be of great interest to Internet policy scholars and students, but it is also accessible to a broader audience interested in learning more about the debates and policies that will shape the future of the Internet and digital networks for many years to come.
My entire review of "Consent of the Networked" can be found on the Technology Liberation Front blog.