Interview with keynote speaker Rebecca MacKinnon
World renowned journalist and Internet freedom advocate Rebecca MacKinnon will deliver a keynote speech at the Internet Days. We can expect a fresh and engaging perspective on the ongoing struggles between surveillance, privacy and freedom.
– My talk will build on my previous “provocations” of the past three years, with some new and provocative suggestions about what democratic societies need to do in light of recent revelations about largely unchecked government surveillance not only in the United States but in other major Western democracies.
The basic challenge is outlined in her 2012 book, “Consent of the Networked,” she explains. Existing political and legal frameworks are ill-equipped to handle the question how we should constrain power and hold accountable those who exercise digital power over citizens in a globally networked world. Democracies have a responsibility, she says, to consider the global human rights implications of their laws and regulations.
There are examples of people trying to come up with a framework that would handle the new challenges. Rebecca MacKinnon mentions among others the “Necessary & Proportionate” group which has produced the aptly named International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. Published in July 2013, this document lists 13 principles including due process, transparency and public accountability. The group consists of some 160 members ranging from civil society groups and technologists to legal experts.
– Each principle is explained in detail and I really recommend reading the whole document.
Putting that framework to work, by applying it to existing and new regulations, is the logical next step. And yes, MacKinnon sees some progress there too.
– Some first steps have been taken with the creation of the Freedom Online Coalition which includes Sweden as a member along with roughly a dozen other countries.
– These governments deserve the world’s praise in taking two vital steps: recognizing that human rights extend to the Internet; and making a shared commitment to preserving and nurturing a free and open, globally interconnected Internet.
Having spent more than a decade working for CNN in China and Japan, Rebecca MacKinnon is acutely aware of the Internet censorship in China. She is also skeptical about the possibility of an “Arab spring” in China any time soon.
– Don’t hold your breath. There are many differences between the Arab world and China – many of which I discussed in my book, Consent of the Networked. A major difference is that in the Arab world, activists use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other companies whose headquarters are far away and over which their governments have limited influence. Chinese Internet users mainly use social media platforms created and operated by Chinese companies like Sina (Weibo), Tencent, and Baidu.
These companies are under the direct control of the Chinese government and are required to obey very strict censorship demands. And not only that, they are also required to work closely with the police and security agencies on providing information about users who are involved with political organizing. As a consequence, people who try to use social media to organize an offline movement that threatens the power of the Communist Party and the central government can expect to be visited by police very quickly.
– Also, the Chinese government has frankly done a much better job than Arab governments of striking an economic bargain with their people. While there are plenty of problems and inequalities to be sure, Beijing can nonetheless point to major improvements in the Chinese people’s livelihoods over the past 30 years. That makes people more inclined to be patient and less inclined to run into the streets and take major risks – they have much more to lose.
Rebecca MacKinnon is currently leading a project called Ranking Digital Rights which spans the globe – researchers are coming from the US, from Europe, Russia, India and, yes, China. The idea is to develop a method to rank the world’s major information technology and telecommunications companies according to their policies and practices related to free expression and privacy.
The project is still in an early research phase but expects to deliver its first ranking report by the end of 2014.
– I welcome as much feedback as possible on this topic from Swedish companies, technologists, civil society, and academia, concludes Rebecca MacKinnon.
Speaking: 25 November, 9.00
Work: Researcher, writer and speaker on global Internet policy and free expression.
Book: Consent of the Networked