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Our Web freedom at the mercy of tech giants

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Special to CNN
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Freedom and control in cyberspace
  • Rebecca MacKinnon: The Web can be a tool for liberating societies
  • She says giant tech platforms such as Facebook can restrict free expression
  • She asks: How can we ensure Web evolves in citizen-centric way?
  • MacKinnon: We need Internet freedom movement to protect rights

Editor's note: Rebecca MacKinnon, a Bernard Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, is the author of "Consent of the Networked," which will be published by Basic Books in January 2012. She is a co-founder of Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers, and was CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief from 1998-2001 and Tokyo Bureau Chief from 2001-2003. She spoke at the TED Global conference this month in Edinburgh, UK. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Wael Ghonim, Google executive by day, secret Facebook activist by night, famously declared right after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February: "If you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet."

Overthrowing a government is one thing. But building a sustainable democracy is turning out to be more difficult, and the Internet's role in that process is much less clear.

In March, Egyptian activists stormed state security offices around the country. Some people found their own surveillance files, still intact, full of transcripts of their mobile phone text messages, e-mail exchanges and even Skype chats.

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One activist even found a contract sent from a Western company to the Egyptian state security bureau for the sale of surveillance technology. Activists in Egypt assume that the transitional government still has such technologies at its disposal.

In Tunisia, censorship returned in May, not nearly as extensive as before, but still the transitional government decided that some Web pages could incite violence and therefore needed to be blocked.

Rebecca MacKinnon: Take back the net

Slim Amamou, a digital activist and member of the transitional government, resigned in protest over the renewed censorship. But other Tunisians who supported the revolution disagreed with him, arguing that speech involving slander, hatred and violence still needs to be controlled. Build a global culture to fight extremism

The question is: Who decides? And how do you prevent the deciders from abusing their power?

The fact of the matter is, the world's democracies do not have clear answers for the people of Egypt and Tunisia: In managing our digital networks, we are fighting our own battles over how to balance genuine economic and security concerns on the one hand with civil liberties and free speech on the other.

In the United States, even people with mixed feelings about WikiLeaks and its mercurial leader Julian Assange are troubled by the reactions of some members of the U.S. government and some businesses. In December, Amazon Web hosting dropped WikiLeaks as a customer soon after receiving a phone call from U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, despite the fact that WikiLeaks was neither charged, let alone convicted, of breaking any U.S. law.

Legally, Amazon has a right to do whatever it wants -- as a privately operated service it can choose to drop any customer who violates its terms of service.

We have a problem, however: Companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google -- on which we as citizens increasingly depend for our political activities -- frequently make decisions about removing content or deactivating accounts based on their own criteria. Those standards are much narrower than the constitutional free speech standards of democracies, or the free speech norms enshrined in international covenants like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We like to think of the Internet as a border-busting technology. Facebook has conquered much of the world. Its global platform and others -- where people can speak and organize more freely than in most authoritarian countries -- helped to power revolutions and revolts over the past year.

But the truth is that borders persist in parts of cyberspace. In China, Vietnam, Russia and several former Soviet states, the dominant social networks are run by local companies whose relationship with the government actually constrains the empowering potential of social networks. The origins of pleasure

China blocks international platforms like Facebook using a system popularly known as the "great firewall of China." But that's only half the story. Companies are also expected to exercise what the government calls "self-discipline." In plain English that means self-censorship and self-policing. Awards are given to the companies that do the best job, and those that fail lose their business licenses.

In Russia, the Internet is not directly censored but intimidation is common. This past spring, a number of people who had donated money to an anti-corruption website, Rospil, through a Russian payment processing system called, received harassing phone calls from members of a nationalist party who -- it turned out -- had somehow been given their information by members of the security services who had demanded it from employees of Yandex.

This has a real chilling effect on efforts to use the Internet to hold government accountable in Russia.

The reality is that the relationship between government and citizens is increasingly dependent on digital platforms owned and operated mainly by the private sector. While these platforms sometimes help expand our freedom, at other times they can serve as opaque and unaccountable extensions of state power.

It is time to stop wasting time on arguments about whether the Internet favors the good guys or the bad guys. Of course it empowers whoever is most skilled in using it, in relation to whoever they consider their main adversary.

The urgent question is how do we make sure that the Internet evolves in a citizen-centric way. Our rights and freedoms on the Internet won't be protected without a much broader and deeper global Internet freedom movement.

If it weren't for decades of activism, governments would never have done the right thing on environmental and labor policy. Without global human rights, labor and environmental movements, companies would still be hiring 12-year-olds as a matter of course and poisoning our groundwater without batting an eyelid.

We cannot assume the Internet will evolve in the citizen's favor without strong and sustained public pressure to ensure that government and technology really do serve the people -- and not the other way around.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca MacKinnon.