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The Web's Benevolent Dictators

Rebecca MacKinnon

Jeffrey Rosen has a great article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend titled Google's Gatekeepers. In it he deals with the question of whether we are becoming too overly dependent on a few big web companies like Google — and whether it's wise over the long run for us to trust their team of (currently) very nice, well-meaning people who are trying hard to do the right thing when faced with government censorship demands and surveillance pressures. He writes:

Today the Web might seem like a free-speech panacea: it has given anyone with Internet access the potential to reach a global audience. But though technology enthusiasts often celebrate the raucous explosion of Web speech, there is less focus on how the Internet is actually regulated, and by whom. As more and more speech migrates online, to blogs and social-networking sites and the like, the ultimate power to decide who has an opportunity to be heard, and what we may say, lies increasingly with Internet service providers, search engines and other Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook and even eBay.

He quotes Columbia Law professor Tim Wu who says: "To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king… One reason they're good at the moment is they live and die on trust, and as soon as you lose trust in Google, it's over for them."

Tim is not the first person to make this point. Danny O'Brien at EFF wrote and spoke about this issue at great length over the summer. I re-quote:

It's like if I was to concede that a benevolent dictatorship is a far more effective model for a political system than a liberal democracy. The problems you hit in that context is when the dictatorship slides from benevolence (or effectiveness), or you need a new dictator in a hurry. I love having Steve Jobs at Apple: I just can't quite believe the odds that the next Steve Jobs will be at Apple too, and the one after that. I want to move my data seamlessly where the best ideas and implementation move.

One effort to place collective limits on the absolute power of the web giants, and to create a framework for greater transparency and accountability, is the Global Network Initiative, with which both Danny and I have been involved. But the GNI is just one step. Danny also advocates a more grassroots solution if people want the same independence online as they have in the physical world (or at least in democracies):

If we want people to have the same degree of user autonomy as we've come to expect from the world, we may have to sit down and code alternatives to Google Docs, Twitter, and EC3 that can live with us on the edge, not be run by third parties.

I've been writing, speaking and attempting to think about these issues as well, in particular, what are the implications when you go beyond the democracies of North America and Western Europe? What are the concrete implications in the Middle East? In China? At the O'Reilly Web 2.0 Summit last month, I tried to provoke my web industry audience to rethink common American assumptions that the internet plus capitalism will inevitably equal democracy, without too much need to worry about the details. Here's the video of my talk, with slides overlaid:

Isaac Mao came right after me, talking about his idea of "sharism." Unfortunately he was asked to shorten his talk because the conference was running behind schedule and Al Gore had to catch a flight:

How do we create viable grassroots, distributed alternatives to Google and Twitter so that if they get shut down, or turn evil, we're not left in the lurch — or in jail? At the iCommons Summit in Sapporo in August, I gave a longer version of the my O'Reilly talk, and called on the global free culture community to work together to make sure that there are enough grassroots, distributed, non-proprietary spaces for people to communicate and express themselves so that we won't be so dependent on the web's benevolent dictators.

The question I have not yet managed to answer is: how do we succeed in breaking our dependence on the benevolent dictators? Or how can we help at least some of our web and telecoms dictators evolve from being monarchies to something more accountable, transparent, and participatory? Figuring out the answer should, it seems to me, be a major priority of free speech activism in the 21st century, and thus a major priority for the foundations and governments who fund them.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online
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