Context Book Review: Globalization and Internet Freedom

This is a review of the book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom by Rebecca Mackinnon

During the last semester in the Master’s of Library and Information Science program, I gave myself a secondary mission: to learn about how information professionals can contribute to global communities through international collaboration. When choosing a novel for the context book review assignment, Consent of the Networked stood out amongst the list of titles for two reasons. First, the title included the word “worldwide,” which indicated that it would definitely discuss issues at the international level. Secondly, I was intrigued by the idea that there could be a struggle for internet freedom even in the United States.

This book definitely did not disappoint! Mackinnon highlights the various ways that the internet and globalization have both positive and negative consequences on our political and social freedoms. Networks in countries including China, South Korea, Egypt, Tunisia, and India are just a few of the networks that are affected by government censorship. In fact, what if I told you that the networks in the United States are also largely controlled and monitored by our government? Would that worry you? Comfort you? How as information professionals does our continued connectedness via the internet inform the way we assist patron communities? Consent of the Networked allowed me to better answer these questions for myself.

Mackinnon organized the book into five parts. The first two parts consider the rise of the internet and the balance of power between the people and their governments. Parts three and four enumerate issues of censorship, privacy, corporate corruption, and technological inequality. Finally, part five describes how we approach internet freedom in order to combat these various issues. Rather than break down each part, in this review I will focus on the points that stood out for me as an information professional.

Librarians are definitely thwarted by the larger populations’ understanding of relevancy. Information resources are more readily available because of digitization and the amount of information out there is growing exponentially every day. In so many ways, the internet has become the ultimate tool for exercising freedom and meting out justice. However, as Mackinnon points out, the fast-paced progress of technology and the World Wide Web “lull” users into complacency. Mackinnon refers to Vaidhyanathan’s book The Googlization of Everything and the concept of “techno-fundamentalism.” Rampant use of Google services has made users blind to the manipulation of major corporations. Users believe that Google can answer any question they might have, and so, do not recognize the relevance of librarians as guides or mediators to information.

Everyone believes they can help themselves because of good ol’ trusty Google.

However, the answers Google provides might not always be the best or most accurate answer. Mackinnon refers to a book titled The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. Users, whether by choice or no, are easily manipulated by Google and other major corporations. Google influences the answers that show up at the top of the search result list. Information taken from their searches and their social networks are given to advertising companies. Unknowingly or knowingly, users consent to curated content. It has become the norm for people to avoid content that does not align with their political or social beliefs. Not only does this allow for isolationist ideology, but it distorts facts and causes discord.

Librarians and information professionals are trained to approach information unbiasedly. The skills we are learning in the MLIS program are in service of information seekers everywhere. Our role is to assist in creating global networks and communities that allow for reciprocal learning. Net neutrality may be a long way off, but the continued work of librarians and information professionals is critical to the struggle for internet freedom.

The internet plays a significant role in modern activism and government accountability. Unfortunately, TV media outlets that are widely ingested by millions of people are still a main source of information. The media, like major internet providers and searching services, are bought by corporations. They vie for the center stage, and have their own agendas to increase their audience and influence their viewers. More than ever before, the internet, more specifically social media, is the megaphone for organizations all over the world. People who are underrepresented or misrepresented in the media have the opportunity to speak up about the controversial issues directly affecting their lives on a platform that can reach as many, if not more, followers as major news media.

In less democratic countries, governments can often use the internet to their political advantage. Freedom of expression is not as highly valued; political and religious dissent is controlled with aggressive censoring of the internet and web searches. However, the same Mackinnon cites an example from 2004 during the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Information about unfair arrests and unimaginable torture conducted by Mubarak’s police force spread through the Egyptian blogger grapevine, a grapevine filled with intellectual, technologically-savvy writers who were passionate about ending Mubarak’s corruption. Evidence of their real-world protests and online writings were soon discovered by the police. Egyptian government attempted to shut down these sites and arrested many of the revolutionary bloggers. However, Mubarak underestimated the power and vastness of the bloggers’ reach. The bloggers who were not captured quickly spread news of the arrests, which were being covered up by Mubarak. Circulation of the government’s corruption incited more internet users to speak out. Facebook groups were created and protests were organized. Other injustices incurred which gave rise to more activist groups.

 

There is one hiccup in absolute freedom of expression. How do we approach vulgar, destructive, violent content on the internet? Anonymity allows people to speak more freely than ever before. The internet can expose children to terrible horrors that should not be so easily accessed. There needs to be a balance in place. Some censorship seems necessary, but how do we stop the government from overstepping.

If you give ‘em an inch, they take a mile!

The answer is to become more involved in the netizen commons. A “netizen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or keen one.” Librarians should make netizenship a primary objective of their job. Becoming and creating a robust netizen community will better prepare us to create netizen-driven institutions. Issues concerning censorship, internet and website standards, and the future of the World Wide Web will be deliberated upon by groups, small and large, that will help us advance in the information tidal wave.

Each librarian and information professional, while trained to try to remain unbiased, has their own political beliefs and social expectations. However, it has long been the duty of librarians to be protectors of the First Amendment. Governments should not maintain control by inhibiting free expression or the dissemination of information. All data should be treated as equal. Networking with librarians will allow people to wade into the overabundant pool of resources and come out with what they were looking for. It is our job as the next generation of librarians to continue protecting the first amendment by teaching patrons how to be netizens and respecting their access to information.

In conclusion, Consent of the Networked is filled with startling examples of how the internet still has a long road to its fullest potential. Obstacles along the way and shifts in ideologies will influence its trajectory. The fight for internet freedom will be strengthened by the information professionals who are trained to build communities in the virtual, local, national, and global spheres.

Additional resource: Mackinnon also discusses one concept that I had never heard before: The Panopticon Effect. I was very interested in this concept and I found a YouTube video that describes it. Check it out!

3 Thoughts.

  1. I appreciate your review and mention of First Amendment rights. In a corporate culture personal opinions are not always respected or encouraged, however there is hope that the corporations will themselves become more transparent and evolved in their thinking and actions.

  2. Valerie, I enjoyed your review. One issue your raised the stood out for me is the international aspect of these issues. I think it’s easy to forget that internet freedom, censorship, privacy, etc. are not viewed similarly across the United States let alone across the world. As libraries and information organizations do become more connected (as communities but also as vast information linked systems), we will have to understand more about how information is presented, preserved and shared in different parts of the world.
    On a related note: the Special Library Association is doing a presentation on Oct 3rd at 7pm with Melanie Sellar, the founder of Librarians without Borders, on international librarianship. See the SLA website for details (disclosure–I’m the programming director for SLA).

    • @mvasudeva thank you for the response! Sorry for the late reply. It would be interesting to research the opinions on censorship and privacy in each of the states. I sometimes forget that my opinions may seem extreme in other parts of the country.

      Thank you for mentioning the SLA presentation, I’ll go to the website and check it out 🙂

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