Last year Exodus International, a Christian group that regards homosexuality as sinful, expressed that view in a software app created for Apple Inc.’s iPhone. Over 150,000 people contacted Apple to protest the app. In response, Apple barred the software from its online store.
A victory for tolerance? Perhaps. But as Internet policy maven Rebecca MacKinnon warns in an important new book, Apple’s decision should serve as a warning that the liberating power of digital technology is under threat from corporations and governments alike.
MacKinnon divides her book into five sections, clearly laying out the problem, with abundant illustrations taken from recent events. She argues that neither political action nor competitive pressure spawned by the free market will protect our rights, finally making a strong case for a third way - a nongovernmental watchdog with sufficient clout to preserve freedom on the Internet.
That corporations are part of the problem should come as no surprise. MacKinnon points out that Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon.com, and other giant companies often adopt corporate policies that threaten freedom or limit people’s access to controversial ideas. For instance, the controversial WikiLeaks website, famed for publishing government secrets, was hosted on servers owned by Amazon, until Senator Joseph Lieberman complained about it. Amazon promptly ousted WikiLeaks. As a business, Amazon is entitled to pick and choose its customers, just as Apple is free to reject any iPhone app. But at what cost to free speech?
And don’t count on laws or regulations to save the day, she points out. Even democratic governments of all sorts are asserting control over the global Internet, in the name of fighting data piracy, eliminating child pornography, or tracking down terrorists. In the process, they are embracing the same methods used by authoritarian governments.
MacKinnon notes that a decade ago, only a handful of regimes, like those of China and Saudi Arabia, imposed nationwide government controls over Internet access. Today, about 40 countries do so, including the United Kingdom, France, India, and the Netherlands.
And the United States is not immune. Consider the Stop Online Piracy Act recently under consideration by Congress. An early version of the bill would have required Internet providers to block websites hosting pirated music or movies. This would have required US Internet services to apply the same tools used by the Chinese government to block news items about Tibet. In addition, the blocking policy would have neutralized an Internet security system designed to protect consumers from fake websites run by criminals. It took a massive public protest, largely conducted on the Internet, to get the measure scrapped.
Indeed, MacKinnon thinks this kind of grass-roots activism is our best chance of keeping the Internet free. She calls for a global campaign to defend Internet freedom in much the same way organizations such as Amnesty International defend human rights. The seeds of such a global initiative have already been planted. There are a host of US nonprofits devoted to the cause, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, and these have counterparts around the globe.
She also cites the Global Network Initiative, an alliance of activists like MacKinnon and technology titans Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. The three member companies have vowed to do business in a manner that protects their users’ rights to free speech and privacy. The companies have also agreed to regular “human rights audits’’ to confirm that they are living up to their standards.
It may not sound like much, partly because it isn’t. Plenty of other Internet companies haven’t embraced these principles. But more of them might, if their customers and shareholders began to insist. And that is the heart of MacKinnon’s final message: “We have a responsibility to hold the abusers of digital power to account. . . . If we do not, when we awake one morning to discover that our freedoms have eroded beyond recognition, we will have only ourselves to blame.’’
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.