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TEDGlobal 2011

Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's take back the Internet!

July 12, 2011

In this powerful talk from TEDGlobal, Rebecca MacKinnon describes the expanding struggle for freedom and control in cyberspace, and asks: How do we design the next phase of the Internet with accountability and freedom at its core, rather than control? She believes the internet is headed for a "Magna Carta" moment when citizens around the world demand that their governments protect free speech and their right to connection.

Rebecca MacKinnon - Internet freedom activist
Rebecca MacKinnon looks at issues of free expression, governance and democracy (or lack of) in the digital networks, platforms and services on which we are all more and more dependent. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So I begin with an advertisement
00:15
inspired by George Orwell
00:18
that Apple ran in 1984.
00:20
(Video) Big Brother: We are one people
00:32
with one will, one resolve,
00:34
one cause.
00:37
Our enemies shall talk themselves to death,
00:39
and we will fight them with their own confusion.
00:42
We shall prevail.
00:47
Narrator: On January 24th,
00:52
Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.
00:54
And you'll see why 1984
00:57
won't be like "1984."
01:00
Rebecca MacKinnon: So the underlying message of this video
01:02
remains very powerful even today.
01:05
Technology created by innovative companies
01:08
will set us all free.
01:11
Fast-forward more than two decades:
01:14
Apple launches the iPhone in China
01:17
and censors the Dalai Lama out
01:20
along with several other politically sensitive applications
01:22
at the request of the Chinese government
01:25
for its Chinese app store.
01:27
The American political cartoonist
01:29
Mark Fiore
01:31
also had his satire application
01:33
censored in the United States
01:35
because some of Apple's staff
01:37
were concerned it would be offensive to some groups.
01:39
His app wasn't reinstated
01:42
until he won the Pulitzer Prize.
01:44
The German magazine Stern, a news magazine,
01:47
had its app censored
01:50
because the Apple nannies deemed it
01:52
to be a little bit too racy for their users,
01:54
and despite the fact that this magazine
01:57
is perfectly legal for sale
01:59
on newsstands throughout Germany.
02:01
And more controversially, recently,
02:04
Apple censored a Palestinian protest app
02:06
after the Israeli government voiced concerns
02:09
that it might be used to organize violent attacks.
02:12
So here's the thing.
02:15
We have a situation where private companies
02:17
are applying censorship standards
02:19
that are often quite arbitrary
02:22
and generally more narrow
02:25
than the free speech constitutional standards
02:27
that we have in democracies.
02:29
Or they're responding to censorship requests
02:31
by authoritarian regimes
02:34
that do not reflect consent of the governed.
02:36
Or they're responding to requests and concerns
02:38
by governments that have no jurisdiction
02:41
over many, or most, of the users and viewers
02:45
who are interacting with the content in question.
02:48
So here's the situation.
02:51
In a pre-Internet world,
02:53
sovereignty over our physical freedoms,
02:55
or lack thereof,
02:58
was controlled almost entirely
03:00
by nation-states.
03:02
But now we have this new layer
03:04
of private sovereignty
03:06
in cyberspace.
03:08
And their decisions about software coding,
03:10
engineering, design, terms of service
03:12
all act as a kind of law
03:15
that shapes what we can and cannot do with our digital lives.
03:17
And their sovereignties,
03:21
cross-cutting, globally interlinked,
03:23
can in some ways
03:25
challenge the sovereignties of nation-states
03:27
in very exciting ways,
03:29
but sometimes also act
03:31
to project and extend it
03:33
at a time when control
03:35
over what people can and cannot do
03:37
with information
03:39
has more effect than ever
03:41
on the exercise of power
03:43
in our physical world.
03:45
After all, even the leader of the free world
03:48
needs a little help from the sultan of Facebookistan
03:50
if he wants to get reelected next year.
03:53
And these platforms
03:56
were certainly very helpful
03:58
to activists in Tunisia and Egypt
04:00
this past spring and beyond.
04:03
As Wael Ghonim,
04:05
the Google-Egyptian-executive by day,
04:08
secret-Facebook-activist by night,
04:11
famously said to CNN
04:13
after Mubarak stepped down,
04:15
"If you want to liberate a society,
04:17
just give them the Internet."
04:19
But overthrowing a government is one thing
04:21
and building a stable democracy
04:23
is a bit more complicated.
04:25
On the left there's a photo taken by an Egyptian activist
04:27
who was part of the storming
04:30
of the Egyptian state security offices in March.
04:32
And many of the agents
04:35
shredded as many of the documents as they could
04:37
and left them behind in piles.
04:39
But some of the files were left behind intact,
04:41
and activists, some of them,
04:44
found their own surveillance dossiers
04:46
full of transcripts of their email exchanges,
04:49
their cellphone text message exchanges,
04:52
even Skype conversations.
04:54
And one activist actually found
04:56
a contract from a Western company
04:58
for the sale of surveillance technology
05:01
to the Egyptian security forces.
05:03
And Egyptian activists are assuming
05:05
that these technologies for surveillance
05:07
are still being used
05:09
by the transitional authorities running the networks there.
05:11
And in Tunisia, censorship actually began to return in May --
05:15
not nearly as extensively
05:18
as under President Ben Ali.
05:20
But you'll see here a blocked page
05:23
of what happens when you try to reach
05:25
certain Facebook pages and some other websites
05:27
that the transitional authorities
05:29
have determined might incite violence.
05:31
In protest over this,
05:34
blogger Slim Amamou,
05:36
who had been jailed under Ben Ali
05:38
and then became part of the transitional government
05:40
after the revolution,
05:42
he resigned in protest from the cabinet.
05:44
But there's been a lot of debate in Tunisia
05:47
about how to handle this kind of problem.
05:49
In fact, on Twitter,
05:51
there were a number of people who were supportive of the revolution
05:53
who said, "Well actually,
05:55
we do want democracy and free expression,
05:57
but there is some kinds of speech that need to be off-bounds
05:59
because it's too violent and it might be destabilizing for our democracy.
06:02
But the problem is,
06:05
how do you decide who is in power to make these decisions
06:07
and how do you make sure
06:10
that they do not abuse their power?
06:12
As Riadh Guerfali,
06:14
the veteran digital activist from Tunisia,
06:16
remarked over this incident,
06:18
"Before, things were simple:
06:20
you had the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other.
06:22
Today, things are a lot more subtle."
06:25
Welcome to democracy, our Tunisian and Egyptian friends.
06:28
The reality is
06:31
that even in democratic societies today,
06:33
we do not have good answers
06:36
for how you balance the need
06:38
for security and law enforcement on one hand
06:40
and protection of civil liberties
06:43
and free speech on the other
06:45
in our digital networks.
06:47
In fact, in the United States,
06:49
whatever you may think of Julian Assange,
06:51
even people who are not necessarily big fans of his
06:54
are very concerned about the way
06:57
in which the United States government and some companies have handled Wikileaks.
06:59
Amazon webhosting dropped Wikileaks as a customer
07:02
after receiving a complaint from U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman,
07:05
despite the fact
07:09
that Wikileaks had not been charged,
07:11
let alone convicted,
07:13
of any crime.
07:15
So we assume
07:18
that the Internet is a border-busting technology.
07:20
This is a map of social networks worldwide,
07:23
and certainly Facebook has conquered much of the world --
07:26
which is either a good or a bad thing,
07:29
depending on how you like
07:31
the way Facebook manages its service.
07:33
But borders do persist
07:35
in some parts of cyberspace.
07:37
In Brazil and Japan,
07:39
it's for unique cultural and linguistic reasons.
07:41
But if you look at China, Vietnam
07:44
and a number of the former Soviet states,
07:46
what's happening there is more troubling.
07:49
You have a situation
07:51
where the relationship between government
07:53
and local social networking companies
07:55
is creating a situation
07:58
where, effectively,
08:00
the empowering potential of these platforms
08:02
is being constrained
08:05
because of these relationships
08:07
between companies and government.
08:09
Now in China,
08:11
you have the "great firewall," as it's well-known,
08:13
that blocks Facebook
08:15
and Twitter and now Google+
08:17
and many of the other overseas websites.
08:20
And that's done in part with the help from Western technology.
08:23
But that's only half of the story.
08:26
The other part of the story
08:29
are requirements that the Chinese government places
08:31
on all companies operating on the Chinese Internet,
08:34
known as a system of self-discipline.
08:37
In plain English, that means censorship and surveillance
08:39
of their users.
08:42
And this is a ceremony I actually attended in 2009
08:44
where the Internet Society of China presented awards
08:47
to the top 20 Chinese companies
08:50
that are best at exercising self-discipline --
08:53
i.e. policing their content.
08:56
And Robin Li, CEO of Baidu,
08:58
China's dominant search engine,
09:01
was one of the recipients.
09:03
In Russia, they do not generally block the Internet
09:06
and directly censor websites.
09:10
But this is a website called Rospil
09:12
that's an anti-corruption site.
09:14
And earlier this year,
09:16
there was a troubling incident
09:18
where people who had made donations to Rospil
09:20
through a payments processing system
09:23
called Yandex Money
09:25
suddenly received threatening phone calls
09:27
from members of a nationalist party
09:29
who had obtained details
09:32
about donors to Rospil
09:34
through members of the security services
09:37
who had somehow obtained this information
09:39
from people at Yandex Money.
09:42
This has a chilling effect
09:45
on people's ability to use the Internet
09:47
to hold government accountable.
09:49
So we have a situation in the world today
09:52
where in more and more countries
09:54
the relationship between citizens and governments
09:56
is mediated through the Internet,
09:59
which is comprised primarily
10:02
of privately owned and operated services.
10:04
So the important question, I think,
10:08
is not this debate over whether the Internet
10:10
is going to help the good guys more than the bad guys.
10:12
Of course, it's going to empower
10:15
whoever is most skilled at using the technology
10:17
and best understands the Internet
10:20
in comparison with whoever their adversary is.
10:22
The most urgent question we need to be asking today
10:25
is how do we make sure
10:28
that the Internet evolves
10:30
in a citizen-centric manner.
10:32
Because I think all of you will agree
10:35
that the only legitimate purpose of government
10:37
is to serve citizens,
10:40
and I would argue
10:42
that the only legitimate purpose of technology
10:44
is to improve our lives,
10:46
not to manipulate or enslave us.
10:48
So the question is,
10:53
we know how to hold government accountable.
10:55
We don't necessarily always do it very well,
10:57
but we have a sense of what the models are,
10:59
politically and institutionally, to do that.
11:02
How do you hold the sovereigns of cyberspace
11:04
accountable to the public interest
11:06
when most CEO's argue
11:08
that their main obligation
11:10
is to maximize shareholder profit?
11:12
And government regulation
11:14
often isn't helping all that much.
11:16
You have situations, for instance, in France
11:18
where president Sarkozy
11:20
tells the CEO's of Internet companies,
11:22
"We're the only legitimate representatives
11:24
of the public interest."
11:26
But then he goes and champions laws
11:28
like the infamous "three-strikes" law
11:30
that would disconnect citizens from the Internet
11:32
for file sharing,
11:34
which has been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur
11:36
on Freedom of Expression
11:39
as being a disproportionate violation
11:41
of citizens' right to communications,
11:44
and has raised questions amongst civil society groups
11:46
about whether
11:49
some political representatives
11:51
are more interested in preserving
11:53
the interests of the entertainment industry
11:55
than they are in defending the rights of their citizens.
11:58
And here in the United Kingdom
12:00
there's also concern over
12:02
a law called the Digital Economy Act
12:04
that's placing more onus
12:06
on private intermediaries
12:08
to police citizen behavior.
12:10
So what we need to recognize
12:14
is that if we want to have
12:16
a citizen-centric Internet in the future,
12:18
we need a broader and more sustained
12:21
Internet freedom movement.
12:23
After all, companies didn't stop polluting groundwater
12:25
as a matter of course,
12:28
or employing 10-year-olds as a matter of course,
12:31
just because executives woke up one day
12:33
and decided it was the right thing to do.
12:35
It was the result of decades of sustained activism,
12:38
shareholder advocacy
12:40
and consumer advocacy.
12:42
Similarly, governments don't enact
12:44
intelligent environmental and labor laws
12:48
just because politicians wake up one day.
12:51
It's the result of very sustained and prolonged
12:54
political activism
12:56
that you get the right regulations,
12:58
and that you get the right corporate behavior.
13:00
We need to make the same approach
13:02
with the Internet.
13:04
We also are going to need
13:06
political innovation.
13:08
Eight hundred years ago, approximately,
13:10
the barons of England decided
13:13
that the Divine Right of Kings
13:15
was no longer working for them so well,
13:17
and they forced King John
13:20
to sign the Magna Carta,
13:22
which recognized
13:25
that even the king
13:27
who claimed to have divine rule
13:29
still had to abide by a basic set of rules.
13:32
This set off a cycle
13:35
of what we can call political innovation,
13:38
which led eventually to the idea of consent of the governed --
13:40
which was implemented for the first time
13:43
by that radical revolutionary government
13:46
in America across the pond.
13:49
So now we need to figure out
13:52
how to build consent of the networked.
13:55
And what does that look like?
13:57
At the moment, we still don't know.
13:59
But it's going to require innovation
14:02
that's not only going to need
14:06
to focus on politics,
14:09
on geopolitics,
14:11
but it's also going to need
14:13
to deal with questions
14:15
of business management, investor behavior,
14:18
consumer choice
14:21
and even software design and engineering.
14:23
Each and every one of us has a vital part to play
14:27
in building the kind of world
14:30
in which government and technology
14:33
serve the world's people and not the other way around.
14:36
Thank you very much.
14:39
(Applause)
14:41

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Rebecca MacKinnon - Internet freedom activist
Rebecca MacKinnon looks at issues of free expression, governance and democracy (or lack of) in the digital networks, platforms and services on which we are all more and more dependent.

Why you should listen

MacKinnon is the director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America, which recently released its inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, ranking 16 Internet and telecommunications companies on their commitments, policies and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. (An expanded Index will be released in 2017.) She is the author of Consent of the Networked, a book investigating the future of liberty in the Internet age, and has been engaging in the debate about how to fight global terrorism while keeping a free and open Internet. A former head of CNN’s Beijing and Tokyo bureaus, MacKinnon is an expert on Chinese Internet censorship and is one of the founders (with Ethan Zuckerman) of the Global Voices Online blog network.

The original video is available on TED.com
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